Listening to the sounds of nature 24-7

A University of Alberta researcher is using bioacoustics technology to record the soundscapes of Alberta wildlife.

“Technology has changed the way we survey for wildlife,” said Erin Bayne, associate professor of biological sciences. “If it makes a sound, we can count it. This is giving us a whole new insight to animal behaviour.”

Bayne and his team of graduate students is working with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute on the new initiative.

“In the past, people would basically go out in the woods, look for animals, stand there, listen for them, count them, and then walk away — you got only one snapshot,” said Bayne. “The bioacoustic unit uses new technology to continuously record soundscapes up to months at a time.”

The group is working to have computers automatically identify species sounds and creating a central repository so that citizen scientists can assist with data entry.

“These machines are out there all the time. We are getting data on species that nobody has ever really monitored before, because some of them call at 10 o’clock at night or two in the morning, times when the average birdwatcher isn’t necessarily out monitoring.

“We’ve found things that we never would have found by just having people do it.”

Their efforts are helping track the effects of climate change on long-term species sustainability. “One of the predictions is that migrating animals won’t be able to keep up with the changes,” said Bayne. “We’ve never really known the exact timing when these animals arrive back for the season.”

The new technology will allow a series of these machines — from Edmonton all the way to the Northwest Territories — to track the exact arrival of the return of the migrating species.

“We will know exactly when the birds arrive at any given point along that trajectory, and we can start to track the changes in their arrival times year to year.”

Bayne and his collaborators are also engaging technology to determine exact locations of the animals.

“Sound travels at a fixed rate. If you put out three of these monitoring units and know the exact time when the sound was recorded, you can triangulate back and say, ‘The bird was right there.’” The tool is also useful for assessing the effectiveness of land reclamation efforts by the energy and forestry sectors.

“We can now tell you whether birds are using trees planted along seismic lines, for example,” he said.

For more info on the bioacoustic unit go to bioacoustic.abmi.ca.

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