Learning to listen to biodiversity

Take part in a unique soundscape experiment

Dr Mika Peck and Dr Alice Eldridge introduce us to soundscape ecology and invite viewers to take part in a mini soundscape experiment being carried out on Springwatch.

In wild biomes, a dawn chorus often seems perfectly orchestrated - the calls of all organisms interlock, rather than overlap. This makes sense in evolutionary terms - if individuals of a particular species can’t hear each other they can’t communicate to mate. This is described as the acoustic niche hypothesis. It makes us think about our acoustic environment, or soundscape, as a resource which individuals compete for – each evolving to fit in their own acoustic niche.

Soundscape Ecology is a relatively new field of ecology, which studies the patterns, causes and consequences of sounds made by humans (anthrophony), other biological organisms (biophony) and geophysical processes (geophony). Rather than individual species’ calls, the soundscape approach listens to the chorus as a whole and to all the sounds that can be heard across a particular landscape.

If we can learn to listen to this soundscape in the right way, we can use sound as a biodiversity monitoring tool. Over the last few years we have carried out acoustic surveys across different habitats in the UK and Ecuador. We couldn’t possibly listen to every recording individually – this would take a lifetime. So, our research explores how well mathematical summaries of the digital audio recordings – acoustic indices – relate to the number of species present, or other ecologically relevant information.

We make thousands of short recordings, analyse the digital audio files to get numbers for each file and compare these to the number of species and abundance estimates made by ornithologists listening to the same recording. If traditional biodiversity metrics and new computer indices show the same patterns of variation then it suggests they are measuring the same thing. We are seeing strong correlations between the two - results are really promising!

This technology does not replace the expertise of ornithologists, but would allow us to rapidly survey huge areas for biodiversity that we couldn’t otherwise access! This could provide a really valuable tool to assess the impacts of climate change, extractive industries, or land use changes and also to evidence the benefits of creating reserves for endangered species.

Springwatch mini soundscape experiment

We would like to invite Springwatch viewers to take part in a soundscape experiment by identifying the number of species you can hear in each of the three sound files below. These will be collected and compared with automated soundscape indices.

We have been recording on the Sherborne Park estate for the past couple of weeks at three different sites: in a small patch of woodland, on a large oak tree in a large pasture and by a river. We have made short recordings around the clock.

To take part in this mini-experiment, please email springwatch@bbc.co.uk stating the number of species you can hear in each of the three sound files, and including a list of species names (common or latin) where possible.

Please also indicate whether you would like to take part in future citizen science research projects with the team.

All recordings were made during the dawn chorus on May 27th on Sherborne Estate. Sound files are given below, along with photographs of each site and a spectrogram which shows the distribution of acoustic energy across time and frequency.