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Climate ChangeHow Digital Technology Is Helping Decode the Sounds of Nature

How Digital Technology Is Helping Decode the Sounds of Nature

Karen Bakker is a geographer who studies digital innovation and environmental governance. Her latest book, The Sounds of Life, trawls through greater than a thousand scientific papers and Indigenous knowledge to explore our emerging understanding of the planet’s soundscape.

Microphones are actually so low-cost, tiny, portable, and wirelessly connected that they might be installed on animals as small as bees, and in areas as distant as underneath Arctic ice. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence software can now help decode the patterns and meaning of the recorded sounds. These technologies have opened the door to decoding non-human communication — in each animals and plants — and understanding the damage that humanity’s noise pollution can wreak.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Bakker, a professor of geography and environmental studies on the University of British Columbia, describes how researchers are constructing dictionaries of animal communication, specializing in elephants, honey bees, whales, and bats. “I believe it’s quite likely,” she says, “that inside 10 years, we can have the power to do interactive conversations with these 4 species.”

Karen Bakker.
University of British Columbia

Yale Environment 360: What inspired you to put in writing this book?

Karen Bakker: I’ve taught a course on environment and sustainability for the past 20 years, and each yr the image is grimmer. My students are coping with numerous ecological grief and climate anxiety. I wanted to put in writing a book for them. They’re digital natives. Digital technology is so often related to our alienation from nature, but I desired to explore how digital technology could potentially reconnect us, as an alternative, and offer measured hope in a time of environmental crisis.

Partly, the concept about sound got here from the work that I used to be doing with Indigenous communities. I used to be really struck by Indigenous teachings about being in dialogue with the nonhuman world. Such dialogues should not merely allegorical or metaphorical, but real exchanges between beings with different languages. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass that in Potawatomi teachings, at one time all beings spoke the identical language, and that has fractured.

As I began to delve into these topics, the world of digital bioacoustics was just opening up — there’s been a literal explosion in research within the last 10 years, and I caught that wave. I used to be fascinated by scientists rediscovering some things that Indigenous communities have long known, with very interesting digital experimental methods.

e360: You checked out greater than 100 species, including some obvious noise makers and sound detectors like whales and bats. Are you able to give an example that surprised you?

Bakker: Peacocks make infrasound with their tails within the mating dance. We used to think the large tail was a visible display, and it’s. But they’re also making infrasound with their tails at a particular frequency that vibrates the comb on top of the peahen’s head. We’ve known about that mating dance for probably 1000’s of years, but we only just discovered that it’s got a sonic component.

“Octopi hear of their arms with little organelles. There’s a myriad of the way nature has invented to listen to that don’t involve ears.”

e360: You furthermore may cover species we traditionally consider as silent, comparable to coral larvae and plants. How do creatures that don’t even have ears hear?

Bakker: They’re hearing: they’re sensing sound, and so they are deriving ecologically meaningful and relevant information from that sound.

Coral larvae, that are microscopic organisms, are able to differentiate not only the sounds of healthy versus unhealthy reefs, but to discern the sound of their very own reef and swim towards it, even from miles away across the open ocean. That puts them in the identical category as great bird migrations, given their size. We don’t really fully understand how this is going on; we’ve only just learned that they’re able to doing it.

Heidi Appel on the University of Toledo did this great experiment with plants: plants are played the sound of insects chomping on plant leaves, and so they react with the discharge of defensive chemicals. These plants only responded to the sound of the insect that’s their predator. They don’t reply to the sound of an insect that doesn’t predate on that plant.
They’ve these little hairs on the outer surface of their leaves which are analogous to cilia, the hairs which are in your ears. We predict that any organism that has little cilia hairs can hear. There are other things used to listen to, too: octopi hear of their arms with little organelles. There’s a complete myriad of the way nature has invented to listen to that don’t involve ears.

Peacocks use their tails to produce infrasound that vibrates the comb atop a peahen’s head.

Peacocks use their tails to supply infrasound that vibrates the comb atop a peahen’s head.
Gunter Marx / Alamy Stock Photo

e360: Is the plant communication result controversial?

Bakker: It’s robust and simply replicable. Where it’s controversial is the way you interpret it. There’s been a giant debate about whether we should always call this “plant intelligence,” and that hinges in your definition of intelligence. For those who imagine that intelligence is a capability of an organism to receive information from the environment and use that to adapt and thrive and problem-solve, then, yes, plants are intelligent. That is an ongoing debate.

e360: You show how acoustic work has revealed surprisingly complex communication. Elephants, for instance, have a separate warning call for the danger of bees versus the danger of individuals.

Bakker: And for various tribes, a few of which don’t hunt the elephants. They’ve highly specific descriptions of their environment.

e360: How far have researchers are available in understanding these languages?

Bakker: Several teams of scientists are constructing dictionaries in animal communication, with special attention to elephants, honey bees, whales, and bats. These are highly vocally energetic species; all of them exhibit a high degree of social behavior; all of them have long-lived cultures and transmit certain vocal markers over generations. Bats have songs that they teach to their young, very similar to birds do. So, these are good candidate species for research using large datasets — we’re talking tens of millions of vocalizations — using artificial intelligence to decode the patterns.

Throughout the pandemic, “sound levels went back to the Fifties. And in that quiet we found numerous animals recovering.”

Tim Landgraf in Berlin has created a robotic honey bee encoded with sounds taught to it by a man-made intelligence algorithm that may go into the hive and tell the bees where a recent source of nectar is. It might do the waggle dance, and they’re going to understand. We’ve broken the barrier of interspecies communication, which is amazing. I believe it’s quite likely that inside 10 years we can have the power to do interactive conversations with these 4 species, with a pair hundred words.

e360: That’s amazing, however it also raises numerous questions, as you discussed in your book, about whether we’ll listen and whether we’ll wish to hear what these creatures need to say.

Bakker: It does. At best, what one could hope for is sort of one other era analogous to the Enlightenment, whereby we come to grasp that lots of our cousins on the tree of life have a greater degree of sentience, intelligence, and language than we had previously thought. This undermines human exceptionalism — humans aren’t any longer the middle of the galaxy — but opens up more empathy, more of a way of kinship with other species. We’re relearning and rediscovering what indigenous communities have long known in regards to the importance of dialogue.

It’s very vital to say that this comes together with a commitment to Indigenous data sovereignty: we now have to rethink the best way during which we harvest the information from places, which are sometimes territories under Indigenous ownership and stewardship. The Maori for instance, have outlined a convincing legal argument that Maori data needs to be subject to Maori governance. And that features the electromagnetic spectrum. That features sound. There are a complete set of practices. I believe the bioacoustics community doesn’t consistently engage with this yet.

e360: What about noise pollution; how serious is it?

Bakker: Even ambient levels of noise pollution that we accept on a day by day basis in most cities have been related to human health risks: cardiovascular risks like increased risk of stroke and heart attack, cognitive impairment, developmental delays, dementia.

e360: And it’s especially bad under water, where sound travels further than light.

Bakker: That’s right. These creatures are exquisitely sensitive to sound and use sound as their primary way of navigating the world. Noise pollution can reduce their ability to search out food, hamper their ability to mate. Loud motorboat noise can literally deform or kill embryo fish embryos and their eggs. Seismic airgun blasts can kill zooplankton as much as a mile from the blast site; they’re the idea of the food chain.

One study that I believe is totally remarkable was just released on marine seagrass: Posidonia oceanica. Seagrass is under threat. And a European team found that sound blasts can distort the plants. It’s as if a loud sound blast rendered you deaf, exploded your stomach so that you couldn’t absorb any food, and knocked you off balance. That’s what loud sound does to those plants.

e360: What might be done about it?

Bakker: One silver lining is that as soon as you reduce the extent of noise, there’s a right away, significant, and protracted profit, unlike chemical pollution, which may take a long time or centuries to degrade. Elizabeth Derryberry went out in San Francisco through the pandemic and found that birds were immediately responding to the quiet by singing songs with more fulsome vocalization ranges and more complexity. Scientists who study acoustics called the pandemic the ‘anthropause’ because sound levels went back to the Fifties. And in that quiet we found numerous animals recovering.

“You place speakers underwater and play the sound of healthy reefs, and you possibly can attract fish and coral larvae back to degraded reefs.”

e360: Is climate change also affecting the planet’s soundscape?

Bakker: Some great elders and grandfathers of this field, like Bernie Krause and Almo Farina, talk in regards to the incontrovertible fact that climate change is “breaking the Earth’s beat.” The Earth has an acoustic rhythm that’s partly biological and partly geological, coming from ocean waves breaking over continental shelves, volcanoes, and calving glaciers. Climate change is altering that. If it’s hotter and drier, birds have a harder time singing into the dawn; sound travels further when it’s humid. And animals move. They develop into climate refugees in search of recent habitat, now not making sound within the places they used to. Some places go very quiet.

Noise pollution is sort of a pea soup fog: we cannot see our hand in front of our face. Climate change is like introducing numerous static into the mobile phone network.

E360: Can sound be harnessed as a tool for good?

Bakker: Yes; you need to use the sounds of healthy reefs, for instance, as a type of music therapy for coral. The technical term is acoustic enrichment. You place speakers underwater, you play the sound of healthy reefs, and you possibly can attract fish and coral larvae back to degraded reefs. They’re doing that in the most important reef restoration project on the earth off the coast of Indonesia.

e360: Have you ever found a method to convey the sounds of other species to people?

Bakker: Once I give talks, one in all the primary things I do is I bring the voices of other species into the room. Sometimes I ask people to guess: who’s making those sounds? And it’s so hard. Individuals are truly shocked by among the intricate noises that other species could make.

Spoiler alert, I’m working on a multimedia project that hopefully will likely be out next yr where people can experience a few of this in other ways.

e360: What else is next for you?

Bakker: My next book is known as Smart Earth. The Smart Earth Project examines how we would use the tools of the digital age to unravel among the most pressing problems of the Anthropocene, be that biodiversity loss or climate change.

One example is the work of Tanya Berger-Wolf, at Ohio State University. She mainly developed a barcode reader, first for zebras, after which a more general app that mainly can discover any creature with scars, stripes, spots, markings. She’s on a mission to create a singular database of people of species on the IUCN Red List. Her work got taken up by the Kenyan government.

One other example is a program off the coast of California that uses bioacoustics, tagging, satellite monitoring, and oceanographic modeling to pinpoint the placement of whales, to tell ship captains so that they can decelerate or avoid the areas where the whales are, in real time, to avoid ship strikes.

We now have an abundance of information and the tools to enable us to do real-time precision regulation that’s preventive and predictive quite than reactive. It applies to endangered species protection; it applies to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s going to totally change the landscape for environmental protection.


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