Nature’s soundtrack reveals the secrets of degradation

Digital listening is become the most powerful new scientific tool for observing and preserving our natural environment. From the Arctic to the Amazon, scientists cover the globe with networks of digital microphones. Citizen scientists use open source, do-it-yourself devices like the AudioMoth – a handheld device not much bigger than a credit card – to listen to the sounds of nature. These devices detect sounds inaudible to humans: from low-frequency infrasounds from elephants and whales to high-frequency echoes from mice, bats and even plants.

In 2023, our new listening skills will enable us to exponentially accelerate environmental monitoring, measure ecosystem health, track the sonic signatures of climate change, reveal the existence of entirely new species, and even rediscover those once thought to be extinct. they were extinct.

In northern Wisconsin, for example, forest researchers Zuzana Burivalova and Angela Waupochick document the evolution of sounds made by forested wetlands in the areas of the Menominee tribes. As climate change reduces water availability, the resulting changes in biodiversity are captured in soundscape recordings.

In the Indian Ocean, researchers at the University of New South Wales recently found an entirely new population of minke whales, which are difficult to detect visually, but whose powerful songs — which travel hundreds of miles — betrayed them.

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

For example, projects such as CETI (the Cetacean Translation Initiative) and Earth Species are trying to decode sperm whale communication using natural language processing techniques. These innovations are now being used in species conservation efforts. Kenyan researcher Lucy King, who discovered that elephants use specific vocal signals for different threats such as honeybees and hunters, is now training farmers across Africa to build acoustic fences for honeybees to ward off marauding elephants and enable peaceful coexistence with humans. make as elephant populations recover.

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

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 also stress, maim or even kill other animal species, particularly in oceans . Ecoacousticians have already documented the degradation of the acoustic characteristics of landscapes—known as soundscapes—from tourist-infested national parks to the depths of the oceans. Researchers at the University of Anglia, for example, are now making historical reconstructions of lost soundscapes. New rules will be introduced in 2023, including stricter International Maritime Organization thresholds for noise pollution from commercial shipping. New technologies, such as “noise radars” on Parisian streets that issue fines to owners of noisy 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 installed underwater sound systems with playlists generated from recordings of healthy reefs, an effort proven to promote reef regrowth.

In 2023, tech companies like Microsoft will also start using AI models to help researchers process and analyze large volumes of bioacoustic recordings. While support from Big Tech can be helpful, it has also raised concerns among groups including the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability. In 2023, the United Nations Environment Program will promote a new framework that treats environmental data as a global common asset, establishing open global standards and governance frameworks for environmental data as a digital public good and implicitly condemning the collection of environmental data. The debate about the dangers of surveillance capitalism will extend to the environmental arena. We hope that using digital bioacoustics to expand our ability to monitor the environment, regenerate ecosystems and rudimentary attempts at communication between species will deepen humanity’s affinity for other species, rather than allow us to set them further to tame and dominate.

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