Ecologists have long been fascinated by animal sounds and in recent decades there’s been growing interest in the field of ‘bioacoustics’. This has partially been driven by the availability of high-definition digital audio recorders that can withstand harsh field conditions, as well as improvements in software technology that can automate sound analysis.
How do we know how many fish there are in the ocean? 1000, 1 billion, 1000 billion? We can’t catch them all and count – that’s not practical. Nor can we make observations from Earth-orbiting satellites – light does not penetrate far into the ocean. What we can use is sound.
Sound travels well in water (faster and further than it does in air), so we can use scientific SONAR (echosounders) to produce sound waves and record backscatter from organisms and communities. This provides information concerning their biomass, distribution and behaviour. A recent study used echoes from the mesopelagic zone (200 – 1,000m) to predict global mesopelagic fish biomass to be between 11 and 15 billion tonnes (that’s a lot), suggesting that mesopelagic fish communities could potentially provide global food security.
10 mesopelagic classes are shown for the open-ocean, echo intensity (a proxy for biomass) increases from blue to red. Coastal zones excluded. Longhurst provinces overlaid. Shapefile here. Proud et al. (2017)
Heard but not seen, populations of forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are rapidly declining due to ivory poaching. As one of the largest land mammals in the world, this species is surprisingly difficult to observe in the dense forests of Central Africa, but their low frequency rumbles can be recorded. With the autonomous recording afforded by passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) though, we have a window onto forest elephant ecology and behaviour that’s providing data critical to their conservation and survival.
The diverse ways that PAM can contribute to conservation outcomes is growing and while still underappreciated, the availability of relatively inexpensive recorders, increased power efficiency, and powerful techniques to automate the detection of signals have led to an explosion in use. In 2007 there were only about 20 published papers using PAM techniques, but since then over 400 papers have appeared in peer-reviewed journals.
Spectrogram of two forest elephant rumbles. Horizontal line shows the limit of human hearing.
Essentially, PAM is the automatic recording of sounds in a given environment, often for long periods. The trick, and often greatest challenge, is to find the signals of interest (bird calls, elephant rumbles, gunshots) within the recordings. With these signals we can quantify abundance, occupancy and spatial or temporal patterns of activity. Particularly in landscapes or ecosystems where visual observation is difficult (e.g. oceans, rainforests, nocturnal environments) PAM may be uniquely capable of delivering informative and unbiased data. Because PAM is a relatively new method but of considerable interest across the disciplines of ecology, behaviour and conservation, there is huge interest in refining the sampling and statistical methods needed to deal with the peculiarities of acoustic data. Continue reading →
This issue contains three Applications articles and two Open Access articles. These five papers are freely available to everyone, no subscription required.
– MatlabHTK: A software interface to a popular speech recognition system making it possible for non-experts to implement hidden Markov models for bioacoustic signal processing.
–PrimerMiner: The R package PrimerMiner batch downloads DNA barcode gene sequences from BOLD and NCBI databases for specified target taxonomic groups and then applies sequence clustering into operational taxonomic units to reduce biases introduced by the different number of available sequences per species.
–BarcodingR: An integrated software package that provides a comprehensive implementation of species identification methods, including artificial intelligence, fuzzy-set, Bayesian and kmer-based methods, that are not readily available in other packages.
To understand the factors shaping vocal communication, we need reliable information about the communicating individuals on different levels. First, vocal behaviour should be recorded from undisturbed animals in meaningful settings. Then we have to separate and assign the individuals’ vocalisations. Finally, the precise timing of vocal events needs to be stored.
Microphone backpacks allow researchers to record the vocal behaviour of individual animals in naturalistic settings – even in acoustically challenging environments! In the video below, Lisa Gill, Nico Adreani and Pietro D’Amelio demonstrate the lightweight radio-transmitter microphone backpacks that have been developed and built at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Department of Behavioural Neurobiology. They show the attachment and setup of this system in detail, evaluate its behavioural effects, and discuss what makes it so useful for studying vocal communication, especially in small animals.
This issue contains two Applications articles and one Open Access article. These three papers are freely available to everyone, no subscription required.
–Solo: Solo audio recorders are inexpensive, easy to construct and record audible sound continuously for around 40 days. The paper also has a video tutorial explaining how to assemble the required hardware and comes with a companion website with more information.
–The third dimension: A novel design to obtain three-dimensional data on the movements of aquatic organisms at depths of up to 140m. The set-up consists of two synchronised high-speed cameras fixed to two articulated arms and can be used for any underwater applications that require synchronized video recordings of medium- to large-sized animals.
This issue contains four(!) Applications articles and two Open Access articles. These six papers are freely available to everyone – no subscription required.
–Earth Mover’s Distance: The Earth Mover’s Distance (or EMD) is a method commonly used in image retrieval applications. The authors of this paper propose its use to calculate similarity in space use in the framework of movement ecology. This will be helpful for many questions regarding behavioural ecology, wildlife management and conservation.
–warbleR: The R package warbleR is a new package for the analysis of animal acoustic signal structure. It offers functions for downloading avian vocalisations from the open-access online repository Xeno-Canto, displaying the geographic extent of the recordings, manipulating sound files, detecting acoustic signals or importing detected signals from other software, and much more.
– meteR: The open-source R package, meteR directly calculates all of Maximum entropy theory of ecology’s (METE’s) predictions from a variety of data formats; automatically handles approximations and other technical details; and provides high-level plotting and model comparison functions to explore and interrogate models.
– Noise Egg: The Noise Egg is a device that can produce a low-frequency sound, which can be used as an experimental source of noise both in aquaria and in the field. It was developed to study the effects of noise on communication and behaviour in small aquatic animals; however, it could be used for other purposes, such as testing the propagation of certain frequencies in shallow-water habitats.
Most people assume that research equipment is expensive and complicated. But, it doesn’t need to be and the noise egg is a perfect example of this. It consists of a watertight container (as used by scuba divers) and the buzzer from a cellphone and does exactly what it says: it produces low frequency noise. This allows researchers to test the effect of noise on underwater life. It is a small, simple and cheap device that anyone can build.
Underwater noise is rapidly increasing due to, for example, boat traffic and offshore wind farms. This can lead to stress for animals and difficulties in communication. Just as people have a hard time communicating in a noisy pub, animals may struggle to get their messages across when background noise is high. A nice description of how animals use sound and how noise may affect this can be found at www.dosits.org
While there is some knowledge on the effect of noise on large aquatic animals, we still know very little about how fish and other small aquatic animals are affected. Such knowledge is vital for management of protected areas. It’s also important to know whether wind farms and boat traffic can affect reproduction in populations of underwater resources such as fish and mussels. The answers to these questions are likely to be species specific, so we’ll need data on a large number of species in different habitats. Continue reading →
David Warton (University of New South Wales) interviews interviews Ben Stevenson (University of St Andrews) about his 2015 Methods in Ecology and Evolution paper ‘A general framework for animal density estimation from acoustic detections across a fixed microphone array’. They also discuss what Ben is currently up to, including an interesting new method for dealing with uncertain identification in capture-recapture, published in Statistical Science as ‘Trace-Contrast Models for Capture–Recapture Without Capture Histories’.
– ctmm: An R package which implements all of the continuous-time stochastic processes currently in use in the ecological literature and couples them with powerful statistical methods for autocorrelated data adapted from geostatistics and signal processing.