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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Nature’s Soundtrack Reveals the Secrets of Degradation

Digital listening is becoming the most powerful new scientific tool for observing and preserving our natural environment. From the Arctic to the Amazon, scientists are covering the globe with networks of digital microphones. Citizen scientists are using open source, DIY devices like the AudioMoth—a handheld device not much larger than a credit card—to listen in on nature’s sounds. These devices detect sounds inaudible to humans: from low-frequency infrasounds made by elephants and whales to high-frequency ultrasounds made by mice, bats, and even plants. 

In 2023, our newfound listening powers will allow us to exponentially accelerate environmental monitoring, measure the health of ecosystems, track the sonic signatures of climate change, reveal the existence of entirely new species, and even rediscover species once thought to be extinct. 

In northern Wisconsin, for instance, forestry researchers Zuzana Burivalova and Angela Waupochick are documenting the evolution of sounds made by forested wetlands in Menominee tribal lands. As climate change reduces water availability, the resulting biodiversity changes are captured in soundscape recordings.

In the Indian Ocean, researchers from the University of New South Wales recently found an entirely new population of pygmy blue whales, which are difficult to detect visually but whose powerful songs—which travel hundreds of kilometers—gave them away.

In 2023, we will invent a zoological version of Google Translate, adapting algorithms developed for human language to decipher nonhuman vocalizations. We will discover that many more species also have cultural dialects, individual names, and perhaps even oral histories. 

For instance, projects like CETI (the Cetacean Translation Initiative) and Earth Species are attempting to decode sperm whale communication using natural language processing techniques. These innovations are now being used in attempts to protect animal species. Kenyan researcher Lucy King, who discovered that elephants use specific vocal signals for distinct threats like honeybees and hunters, is now training farmers across Africa to build acoustic honeybee fences to ward off marauding elephants and enable peaceful coexistence with humans as elephant populations rebound. 

But these innovations are also being used to attempt to domesticate new species. At the Free University of Berlin, researchers have devised AI algorithms to train robots that buzz and hum like honeybees, successfully communicating simple commands to the hive. In 2023, these robots will be inserted into networked “smart” beehives to coordinate and direct honeybee behavior, including the choice of nectar-harvesting sites.

Digital bioacoustics will also reveal the vulnerability of living organisms to the global epidemic of noise pollution, which not only increases the risk of heart attacks and dementia in humans but can stress, maim, or even kill other species—particularly in oceans. Eco-acousticians have already documented the degradation of landscapes’ acoustical signatures—also known as soundscapes—from tourist-infested national parks to the depths of the oceans. Researchers at the University of Anglia, for instance, are now creating historical reconstructions of lost soundscapes. In 2023, new regulations—including stricter thresholds from the International Maritime Organization for noise pollution from commercial shipping—will be enacted. New technologies, such as “noise radars” on Parisian streets that issue fines to owners of raucous vehicles, will automate enforcement.

In 2023, scientists will also use digital bioacoustics to regenerate ecosystems. For example, to restore endangered coral reefs in Indonesia, researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Edinburgh have installed underwater sound systems with playlists generated from recordings of healthy reefs, an effort that has been proven to foster reef regrowth. 

In 2023, tech companies such as Microsoft will also start leveraging AI models to assist researchers in processing and analyzing large volumes of bioacoustics recordings. While support from Big Tech might prove useful, it has also raised concerns from groups including the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability. In 2023, the United Nations Environment Program will advance a new framework that treats environmental data as a global commons, establishing open global standards and governance frameworks for environment data as a digital public good and implicitly condemning environmental data hoarding. The debate over the dangers of surveillance capitalism will extend into the environmental arena. We hope that the use of digital bioacoustics to expand our ability to monitor the environment, regenerate ecosystems, and engage in rudimentary attempts at interspecies communication will deepen humanity’s affinity with other species, instead of enabling us to further domesticate and dominate them.

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