The Acoustics Of Eavesdropping

Updated July 12, 2016 12:27:42

A man using a sound recorder to monitor outback ecosystems. A man using a sound recorder to monitor outback ecosystems. Photo: Hundreds of sites have been chosen to host audio sensors for long-term monitoring. (Supplied: David Watson)

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>Map: Australia

Ecologists are proposing a national network of acoustic recorders to eavesdrop on Australian ecosystems, in the same way that radio astronomy infrastructure listens to the universe.

Key points:

  • Soundscape ecology enables environments to be monitored using their acoustic energy
  • Eco-acoustics have typically been used at species level, rather than the whole environment
  • New proposal is for a national network, rather than the current case-by-case funding model

"We've been interested in sound for a long time but typically at the species level, as an identification tool," David Watson, Professor of Ecology at Charles Sturt University, said.

"Eco-acoustics pulls back from single species and looks at the whole environment.

"Only in the last decade have we started thinking along these broad, system-wide lines."

The study of soundscape ecology enables environments to be monitored and compared using measurements of their acoustic energy.

An increasing number of research projects are utilising small digital audio recorders with SD cards to assess biodiversity and track environmental change.

"They're really changing the way we operate," Professor Watson said.

"They keep working when you're sleeping, you've gone home, weird things happen out in the field, and they're ticking over, capturing that rare event".

There have been 450 sites across woodlands, wetlands and arid zones chosen to host permanent sensors.

Sound monitoring to be used to locate endangered bird

Currently, the Australian Research Council funds acoustic monitoring projects on a case-by-case basis.

The new proposal is for a national network, similar to government-funded astronomy infrastructure.

"Ten years from now, we're going to be able to do things that we can't really conceive of now," Professor Watson said.

The eastern bristlebird, a small brown endangered bird native to Australia. The eastern bristlebird, a small brown endangered bird native to Australia. Photo: The bristlebird is almost impossible to find through traditional bird watching methods. (Supplied: Jessie Cappadonna)

For her PhD at the Queensland University of Technology, Jessie Cappadonna is using sound to locate the endangered eastern bristlebird.

She said trying to find the bristlebird through traditional bird watching methods was almost impossible.

"They make very little sound other than in the breeding season, and they're not in high abundance," Ms Cappadonna said.

"They live in small numbers, and they live in a pretty broad area".

Acoustic monitoring uses an array of devices that record over long periods of time, generating large amounts of data to process.

Ms Cappadonna's research is designed as a citizen science project, and she intends to recruit the public to help identify bird calls from recordings.

"Hopefully we can capture the sweet serenades of the eastern bristlebird," she said.

'A soundscape is worth 1000 pictures'

A soundscape from the forests of the remote Adelbert Mountains in Papua New Guinea. A soundscape from the forests of the remote Adelbert Mountains in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Sound recordings from remote areas are transformed into spectrograms for analysis. (Supplied: The Nature Conservancy)

Musician, composer, and audio engineer Bernie Krause is regarded as the father of soundscape ecology.

He entered the ecology field after a music career in the film industry.

"In 1979, I'd just finished working on Apocalypse Now, but I'd been fired eight times during the process, and of course re-hired eight times, and as a result I just decided I didn't want to work in Hollywood anymore," Dr Krause told Catalyst.

"I went back to school, got my PhD in bioacoustics, and I've been working in the field ever since.

"When I started, there were six people studying this field. Now there are probably 700."

Dr Krause said biology was typically studied from a visual perspective, and that researchers did not "get a full picture from environmental science" without adding sound to the mix.

"A picture is worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures," he said.

"Soundscapes are a narrative of place. And within that narrative, there are lots of stories being told about how well we're doing in relationship to these habitats."

Watch how soundscape ecology can reveal unseen stories of the natural world on Catalyst tonight at 8pm on ABC TV.

Topics: ecology, environment, endangered-and-protected-species, australia

First posted July 11, 2016 20:55:08

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