Passive Acoustic Monitoring provides a fresh perspective on fundamental ecological questions

Samuel R.P-J. Ross, Darren P. O’Connell, Jessica L. Deichmann, Camille Desjonquères, Amandine Gasc, Jennifer N. Phillips, Sarab S. Sethi, Connor M. Wood, Zuzana Burivalova

This is a plain language summary of a Functional Ecology review article which can be found here.

From a bleary-eyed dawn chorus, to magnificent symphonies of whale song, to deafening choruses of tropical insects, the natural world is awash with the sounds of life. For years, people have been taking detailed records of these soundscapes using microphones. More recently, ecologists are making use of the digital age to leave autonomous recording devices outside in forests, mountains, rivers, the deep sea, and beyond, to capture the rhythm of natural ecosystems. Such work has been transformative for the way we survey biodiversity in challenging locations, and has informed conservation management of species and habitats the world over. However, acoustic monitoring is no longer only an applied tool; ecologists now often use acoustic data to explore fundamental questions concerning the natural world.

In this review, we focused on the use of passive acoustic monitoring to answer some of the longstanding basic questions that have intrigued ecologists for decades, as well as emerging questions where soundscapes are opening up new research directions. We reviewed some advantages and challenges of using acoustic monitoring data to answer fundamental questions, and discussed examples where soundscapes can reveal information on questions including: how much biodiversity there is on earth; why animal populations change over time and space; how climate change affects the pace of organisms’ lives; and how ecosystems respond and recover from disturbances such as habitat destruction. Finally, we charted the near future of ecoacoustic research, looking at the applications of acoustic monitoring on the horizon—including the ability to precisely pinpoint the location of individual animals—and global efforts to build soundscape databases which will act as important baselines under continuing global environmental change.

Automated acoustic recording unit (Wildlife Acoustics Songmeter SM4) in Okinawa, Japan (credit: Samuel R.P-J. Ross)

Though acoustic recording technology has been around for a long time—and humans have been listening to ecosystems for even longer—there is still much to learn by listening to nature. We hope this review motivates the use of passive acoustic monitoring approaches to think about blue-skies research and the grand challenges affecting our planet, because much of what we can learn by recording and experiencing natural soundscapes is fundamental to our knowledge of life on earth.


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