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Big bioacoustics boost: Cornell University program receives $24 million donation

Topher White of Rainforest Connection installing a bioacoustic device in the forest canopy. Image by Ben Von Wong.

Topher White of Rainforest Connection installing a bioacoustic device in the forest canopy. Image by Ben Von Wong.

  • The field of bioacoustics has been a game changer when it comes to monitoring and discovering new things about animals and ecosystems, both on land and at sea.
  • Still a relatively new discipline, one of the leading programs in the field globally was founded in the 1980s at Cornell University, which has just announced a donation of $24 million to support its bioacoustics work.
  • The K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics will use the funds to accelerate its training of researchers, facilitate development of new tools and partnerships, and build a global network of people who can share bioacoustics best practices.

The rapidly growing field of bioacoustics received a big boost when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced a gift of $24 million to support its Center for Conservation Bioacoustics program, which was founded in the 1980s to gather information about ecosystem health and animal communication through sound.

Like other sorts of sensing technology—satellite imagery of forests, for instance—the field of bioacoustics has been a game changer when it comes to discovering new things about natural systems. Like monitoring forests from far above, listening to ecosystems via bioacoustics reveals much about the animals living in such places, and threats they face like illegal hunting, fishing, or logging. Combined with camera trapping, scientists and conservationists are now able to learn a lot about ecosystems without even being present.

Announced on June 4, the donation is the largest onetime gift in the lab’s history, which has renamed the program to K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics in saluting the donor. The gift also endows the John W. Fitzpatrick Directorship for the center, so named for the longtime director of the Lab of Ornithology, the Cornell Chronicle reported.

A bioacoustics device. Image courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“This gift is transformational for our role in bioacoustics research globally,” said Fitzpatrick in a statement. “It’s cementing the security of a globally excellent institution in perpetuity, and at the same time significantly increasing our ability to engage and train people in a variety of cultures worldwide.”

Cornell University President Martha Pollack added, “We’re living in a tremendously exciting time for the kind of critically important, machine learning-driven research that’s happening at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Lisa Yang’s generous and timely gift will allow the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics team to keep doing the kind of high-impact terrestrial, aquatic and marine bioacoustics research for which they are renowned.”

The power of bioacoustics to help us learn all sorts of things—like the recent discovery that North Pacific right whales have begun singing for the first time ever—plus the low cost and ease of these devices’ installation has been motivational for many. It inspired Yang Center director Holger Klinck to leave a well-paid engineering job to pursue a Ph.D., for which he studied the vocal behavior of leopard seals.

“Observing marine mammals visually is challenging as they typically spend a lot of time underwater,” he told Mongabay. “Also, the areas where the animals occur are often inaccessible to us. However, marine mammals regularly vocalize underwater for communication, navigation, and foraging. As sound travels extremely well underwater, passive acoustic monitoring is an excellent method to observe and study marine critters.”

This ability to extend our learning, even under the water and over great spans of time, is increasingly important as humanity’s impact on the planet, including underwater noise pollution, increases.

Installing a device to record forest soundscapes in Papua New Guinea. Image by Justine Hausheer/The Nature Conservancy.

“As the human noise footprint continues to grow, pristine soundscapes are going extinct,” Klinck said. “So generally, there is a lot of value in gathering data in remote and minimally disturbed areas to capture these pristine soundscapes for future generations. They also provide a baseline other soundscapes can be compared to.”

Soundscapes provide an audio snapshot of all sound-making creatures in an area, from bugs to bats and birds, and can be a key method for benchmarking the overall makeup and health of ecosystems.

Establishing such baselines as Klinck notes, and having access to near-real time data about how they’re changing, was a focus of a recent publication in the journal Science co-authored by Mongabay CEO Rhett Butler, who noted the gravity of the Cornell announcement:

“Soundscape monitoring and research via bioacoustics could transform our ability to understand ecological communities and track biodiversity trends,” Butler said. “Lisa Yang’s generous commitment to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Bioacoustics is potentially a tremendous boost for efforts to protect wildlife and wild places.”

Mongabay regularly covers advances and discoveries from the field of bioacoustics, and it is a regular feature of the organization’s podcast via its popular “Field Notes” segments which feature conversations with researchers who play their field recordings and discuss what they may indicate about animal behavior or ecosystem health. The podcast’s most downloaded episode to date features Cornell-linked bioacoustics researcher Ana Verahrami discussing the Elephant Listening Project’s work in the Central African Republic, for instance:

Acoustics get AI assist

Recording devices used by researchers and conservationists are now low-cost and widely available, and collecting terabytes of data on has never been easier, so a primary challenge now is data analysis, Yang Center director Klinck told Mongabay.

“The field of bioacoustics is currently being revolutionized by the development and application of powerful machine learning algorithms. For example, one of our recent algorithms, called BirdNET, can identify calls from over 3,000 bird species with high precision,” Klinck said. “We are currently working on a project led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison to acoustically monitor avian biodiversity across the entire Sierra Nevada Mountain range using 2,000 recorders. This is one of the largest acoustic monitoring projects that has ever been conducted in the world.”

The results could help assess the impacts of climate change on avian biodiversity at ecologically relevant scales. Even just a few years ago, a project like this would not have been possible, he says, because it would have taken years to analyze the data for all relevant bird species. “Machine learning now makes this possible.”

New algorithms are currently being developed for other taxonomic groups, too—frogs and toads, for instance—which will allow researchers to mine vast sound archives to provide the ability to monitor vocal species at an unprecedented spatial/temporal scale.

See related: Mongabay’s exclusive interview with K. Lisa Yang, Betting big on bioacoustics

Rockhopper autonomous recording unit being retrieved after monitoring ambient noise in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The logical next step is to move these algorithms ‘to the edge’ he says. “By implementing them on low-power computing modules, we will be able to monitor the soundscape at the deployment location in real-time and report occurrences of target signals (animal calls, gunshots, etc.) to practitioners and decision-makers,” thereby reducing the timeframe in which the presence of a novel species is discovered, or the reporting of illegal logging to authorities before much forest can be cut, for example.

Outside of natural ecosystems, the Cornell program is increasingly applying bioacoustics in human-dominated areas, like sustainable agriculture. One project funded by Nespresso uses bioacoustics to assess the effectiveness of alternative practices like shade-grown coffee to increase biodiversity on coffee plantations.

The donation will also support the program’s training of researchers, facilitate development of partnerships with local scientists and communities, and build a global network of people who can share bioacoustics best practices.

Erik Hoffner is an editor for Mongabay, find him on Twitter via @erikhoffner.

Banner image: Topher White of Rainforest Connection installing a bioacoustic device in the forest canopy. Image by Ben Von Wong.

Further listening: One of the Mongabay podcast’s most popular “Field Notes” segments was about using bioacoustics to make new discoveries of one of the world’s greatest vocal mimics, the superb lyrebird, listen here: 

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