EarthTalk…Questions and Answers About Our Environment

Dear EarthTalk: I heard we’re running out of so-called “tonewoods” for making acoustic guitars. Are there are alternative materials that eco-minded luthiers can switch to?       ~ B.C., Montgomery. PA

Most guitars out there today are crafted out of some form of spruce, mahogany, maple or cedar. But increased demand and widespread mechanized logging around the world has decimated populations of many of these so-called “tonewoods,” leaving luthiers (guitar makers) with little choice but to start considering alternative materials.

Man-made materials are becoming popular as tonewood alternatives. The most pervasive non-wood guitar material out there now is carbon fiber. Enya, Emerald, KLOS and Lava Music are among the companies pioneering the use of carbon fiber as the base material for their guitars. It has many benefits such as durability—it’s 10 times stronger than steel—and light weight, but it’s hardly sustainable given that it’s made from a non-biodegradable petroleum-based polymer that cannot be recycled or melted down.

A better choice for the eco-minded strummer could be Flaxwood, made by breaking the grain structure of natural wood and injection-molding it into shape with an acoustically sensitive binding agent. The resulting composite is resists changes in humidity, and provides an eco-friendly alternative to tonewoods.

Another good option is a guitar made out of reclaimed wood. Whether the wood was salvaged from a barn, a table or a deck, it could be the perfectly aged tonewood of your dreams. And you’re saving living trees from being cut down to build a new guitar.

Believe it or not, bamboo is also a good substitute for tonewoods. Luna’s Woodland Bamboo Grand Auditorium Acoustic-Electric Guitar is a beauty made out of bamboo—and offers many features and great playability for a modest price.

There are also plenty of alternative tonewoods out there that are from less rare trees. Buying a guitar made of Agathis wood helps preserve the rainforests where the trees grow in Southeast Asia. Koa, basswood, khaya and sapele are all good stand-ins for spruce and mahogany without the conservation baggage. Some Martin models now feature wood from fast growing granadillo trees, native to Venezuela. And Fender has swapped out rosewood for more sustainably grown pau ferro on various guitars in its line.

In 2011, Taylor Guitars, a preeminent acoustic guitar maker, bought a controlling interest in Crelicam, an ebony mill located outside of Yaoundé, Cameroon. In the ensuing years, Taylor has worked with Crelicam on the sustainable sourcing of ebony for use by guitar builders and other craftspeople.

As our planet grapples with environmental challenges, guitar makers are on the cutting edge of harmonizing their craft with sustainability. Indeed, the quest for eco-friendly alternatives to traditional tonewoods has struck a chord in the luthier community.

CONTACTS: The Crelicam Mill in Cameroon,; The hunt for alternative tonewoods: how guitar luthiers are looking to save the planet,


Dear EarthTalk: How are researchers using wildlife to track environmental conditions and monitor climate change?     ~ Jane P., South Bend, IN

Scientists currently rely mainly on a complex network of satellites, ocean buoys, weather stations and balloons to help predict the weather and the effects of climate change, but it might not be the best solution. What if instead of using satellites and weather stations to study the planet, scientists used animals? Imagine a world where a pigeon could help gather information on air pollution.

In Mongolia, pigeons equipped with sensors fly around the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and help measure the air quality. Credit:

That world already exists. In Mongolia, pigeons equipped with sensors fly around the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and help measure the air quality. Tagged elephant seals help provide nearly 80 percent of all available information on ice depth and ocean salinity in Antarctica. Geolocation sensors, often attached to animals via collars or tags, can provide scientists with near endless amounts of information on wildlife and the environment. The sensors, equipped with GPS and other advanced technology, offer a lens directly into the habitats that animals inhabit.

Using wildlife to track environmental conditions only highlights the shortcomings of current methods of collecting climate data. While satellites can gauge temperatures at the surface of a cloud-covered jungle canopy, they cannot reveal the conditions on the ground. Not the way that a monkey would be able to. Most weather stations are built on flat land and in developed areas, not in the mountainous regions that are heavily affected by climate change. However, mountain goats or birds with sensors can easily monitor the temperatures of the region. Wildlife geolocation sensors can help fill critical data gaps, particularly in more remote areas of the planet.

Equipping fish, birds, seals and other animals with sensors can offer highly localized and timely data that current tech cannot. The sensors can provide data on animal behavior and migration patterns along with data on environmental conditions impacted by climate change. They can improve scientists’ measurements on air temperature, ocean salinity, air pollution and biodiversity. Rather than using satellites to capture images of the planet’s surface, scientists can study animal decisions and preferred conditions to sense the quality and health of ecosystems. Studying the environmental conditions that drive animals’ movements can offer a lens directly into the habitats themselves.

Thanks to action by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, thousands of birds and animals are already outfitted with sensors, but the opportunities that wildlife tracking presents have not yet been fully realized. To implement geolocation sensors on a wider scale there must be collaboration between government agencies and the science community. The data that the sensors could provide the scientific world would be more accurate, timely, cost-effective and non-invasive than the more popularized current methods. Wildlife tracking provides an opportunity for revolution in conservation efforts, environmental monitoring and research on climate change.

CONTACTS: Biological Earth observation with animal sensors,; Animals may be the best monitors of global climate change,; Gauging the role animals can play in monitoring climate change,


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