13 October 2022

The scientific secrets behind México Mágico

Learn more about the inspiration behind our magical 3D audio sculpture at Mexico this autumn.

Tiziana Ulian
Kew researcher Silvia Bacci

By Dr Tiziana Ulian , Silvia Bacci and Eddie Johnston

A shot of a tree canopy from the ground with golden yellow leaves

Visit Mexico this autumn to discover the brand-new México Mágico installation for a limited time only.

The installation México Mágico by Augustine Leudar creates surreal soundscapes from different Mexican forest habitats to immerse visitors in a unique, ethereal auditory experience.

It uses a realistic 3D audio recreation of these ecosystems, imaginary elements synthesized from field recordings, pitched down ultrasonic sounds such as bat calls, and cultural elements all from the conservation region.

Mexico is the fourth most biodiverse country in the world, with around 26,000 native plant species, of which around 40% are found nowhere else.

Along with its incredible plant diversity, Mexico is also home to a rich variety of cultures, with 62 distinct ethnic groups speaking hundreds of languages.

That's a lot to cover in a soundscape, right?

Discover the magic yourself at Mexico this autumn.

Book tickets

The Temperate House


México Mágico immerses the visitor in a sea of sounds from the enchanted Mexican forests. But what exactly is behind these sounds?

You might hear the song of various birds called grackles, such as the great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus). Also known as 'zanate mexicano', their iridescent feathers were used by Aztecs for decoration.

Grackles can imitate sounds — according to Mexican mythology, they have 'stolen' seven songs from other animals, as they were mute at the beginning of the Creation.

You might also hear the Montezuma oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma), also known as 'cacique de Moctezuma'. Another interesting inhabitant of Mexican forests, it has a loud and unique call.

A dark blue-black bird with yellow eyes on a branch
The great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus), Bernard Dupont on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0
A brown bird with a black head and colourful beak eating a yellow fruit
A male Montezuma oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma), Kathy Sam on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Monkey business

Other animals you might hear include the Mexican howler monkey (Alouatta palliata mexicana), which is found across Southern Mexico. They make very loud calls, described as being roars, barks and screeches.

As keen fruit eaters, howler monkeys disperse the seeds of many species of plants, helping to maintain the health of these ecosystems. This includes Brosimum alicastrum, also known as 'breadnut' or 'ramón'.

This was a staple food for Ancient Mayas, and today is considered a ‘famine food’, as it is highly nutritious, inexpensive, and readily available for local communities. The fruits and seeds are eaten, as well as the sap being used for its medicinal properties.

The Classic Mayas considered howler monkeys sacred, and revered the Howler Monkey God as a deity of arts and crafts.

A monkey with dark fur sits on a branch surrounded by green leaves
A male howler monkey (Alouatta sp.), Dr. Ariel Rodriguez-Vargas on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Several round mottled green fruits growing on a branch with green leaves
Breadnut (Brosimum alicastrum), Janhendrix on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Hanging around

If you listen carefully, a bat call can be heard in México Mágico.

There are a wide variety of bat species in Mexican forests. Many species, like Artibeus batseat fruit and spread the seeds around the forests, including sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) fruit.

Sapodilla was used by Ancient Aztec and Maya civilizations for both its edible fruits and its sap, a milky latex known as 'chicle'.

The sap was dried to obtain a rubbery substance that was chewed to keep teeth clean, and to inhibit hunger during ritual fasting.

Like most bats, Artibeus species are nocturnal, and use trees, caves, and even folded leaves (so-called ‘tents’) as roosting sites.

Normally, bat calls are too high a frequency for humans to hear, so for México Mágico, the call was made audible by pitching down its frequency.

A pair of light brown fluffy bats underneath a leaf
A pair of neotropical bats (Artibeus sp.), Peter Nijenhuis on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Several light brown textured fruits growing on green leaves
Manilkara zapota fruits, Daderot on Wikimedia Commons CC0

México Mágico’s forest habitats

In Mexican pre-Columbian mythology, forests and trees were very powerful symbols.

Four trees of life, or Yaxchés, were believed to hold the sky at each corner of the Earth, and a fifth one connected the three cosmic levels of the Underworld, the Earth, and the Sky.

A colourful Aztec illustration showing four trees
Representation of the four cosmic trees at the cardinal points of the world from the Aztec Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Lacambalam on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The sounds of the México Mágico installation were mostly recorded in the South of Mexico, in cloud forests, rainforests, temperate forests, and mangrove swamps.

Each one of these plays a key role in the ecosystem of the country, contributing to its incredible biodiversity.

Many of the plants growing in Mexican cloud forests are found nowhere else in the world. The rainforests hold a considerable amount of the country’s biodiversity on their own. Temperate forests are home to a huge variety of pine trees, with 50% of the world's pine species being found in Mexico.

The benefit even reaches beyond the land, with mangrove forests not only helping provide a defense against flooding, but also providing habitats for marine life. 

A foggy forest filled with tall slender trees
A Mexican temperate forest in Oaxaca, Prsjl on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0
Many roots rising up from brown water, with green leaves in the background
Mangrove forest in Veracruz, Adam Jones on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

The magic behind the forests

A key message of the installation is that without forests, life cannot be preserved.

According to pre-Columbian beliefs, in every forest there were different guardians, called 'amoxoaques', responsible for preserving the forest and safeguarding the trees.

Many tree species were considered sacred by Ancient Mayas and other Mexican communities in the pre-Hispanic era, often due to their potent medicinal properties.

Other interesting characters in the Ancient Mayan tradition were the 'aluxes' and 'chaneques', spirits of the woods inhabiting mountains, caves, and springs that safeguard the natural world.

These guardians still exist today, although not supernatural creatures: with their knowledge and commitment to protect natural environments, indigenous people across Southern Mexico work constantly to protect these critical ecosystems.

A shot of a dense forest with clouds at the top of the shot
A cloud forest in El Triunfo, Panza Rayada on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

México Mágico is connected to Kew’s research programme led by scientists Dr Tiziana Ulian and Michael Way in collaboration with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and NGO Pronatura Veracruz aiming to protect, conserve and enhance Mexican forests' natural capital. It focuses on preserving native tree seeds and supporting the livelihoods of local communities and it is supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Aldama Foundation.

Augustine Leudar spent four months recording isolated and complex layers of sound at various heights and points across forest ecosystems in Mexico, mainly cloud forests, rainforests, seasonally dry tropical forests, temperate forests, and mangrove swamps.

A colourful illustrated banner showing a Mexican style skull


Escape to the vibrancy of Mexico this autumn for a visual spectacular within Kew Gardens iconic Temperate House

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