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Soundscape ecology: what sound can tell us about ecological functioning

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Many organisms (including humans) depend on sound for communication, predator/prey detection, and navigation. Thus, the intrusion of anthropogenic noise has consequences, masking natural sounds, altering wildlife behavior, physiology, and distribution and increasing stress and annoyance in humans. My research focuses on the science of sound in a landscape, examining the distribution and impact of noise pollution and monitoring biodiversity using acoustic recordings. Using thousands of hours of acoustic recordings and continental-scale sound models I examined the level and drivers of noise in U.S. protected areas. I found that noise pollution was pervasive, doubling background sound levels in 63% of U.S. protected area units and causing a ten-fold or greater increase in 21%, surpassing levels known to interfere with human visitor experience and disrupt wildlife. The dominant noise sources were aircraft and automobiles, while the loudest noises were emitted from trains and watercraft. Using a spatial planning approach, I am working to combine this information to build a framework for a national noise mitigation strategy. Extracting meaningful biological information from large-scale acoustic recordings can be problematic given the volume of data, with many approaches being prohibitively labor intensive and time consuming. Thus, I test the utility of bioacoustics indices, which are increasingly used to rapidly characterize biological communities. I reviewed the acoustic index literature, analyzing the efficacy of different indices to characterize bioacoustic activity, species richness, functional diversity, and landscape attributes. I then implemented a subset of the most effective indices on acoustic data collected at over 50 sites in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats across the continental U.S. I found that bioacoustics indices reflect the richness of species vocalizing in acoustic recordings and the abundance of common avian species song. Thus, bioacoustics indices and large-scale recordings offer a powerful tool, with the potential to monitor the dynamics of biodiversity and ecological communities across enormous spatial-temporal scales.

This talk is part of the British Antarctic Survey series.

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