Decoding Nature’s Soundscapes

Using new technologies and artificial intelligence (AI)-powered analysis, scientists are getting closer to understanding how organisms and ecosystems use sound, or “bioacoustics,” to communicate.




Using new technologies and artificial intelligence (AI)-powered analysis, scientists are getting closer to understanding how organisms and ecosystems use sound, or “bioacoustics,” to communicate. This new data could increase our understanding of adverse environmental impacts, support restoration efforts, and accelerate environmental monitoring. Business can anticipate increased scrutiny of the environmental impacts of their industry, including noise disturbance, as well as implications for sustainability reporting and ethical data use.

Listening to Nature

Can humans have interactive conversations with nature? Can we decode the language of animals, plants, or entire ecosystems? What would we hear and how would we use this information if we could?

Leveraging new technologies and AI, researchers are making headway toward interspecies communication. By recording and analyzing bioacoustics, or how organisms use and respond to sound, scientists are decoding complex communication in other species. With these new insights comes the potential to understand more fully the impacts of human systems in the natural world.

As it turns out, nature is leveraging sounds in remarkable ways. What was once considered silent, like marine organisms, plants, and even forests, are now known to use sound to listen to and communicate with the world. For example, when choosing a home, coral larvae use sound to identify healthy and unhealthy reefs from miles across the ocean. Plants use acoustic vibrations to send their roots toward water sources. 

Further still, scientists are already finding ways to use bioacoustics research to break barriers between interspecies communication. For example, researchers are now deciphering the sounds of tomatoes to determine whether plants are dehydrated or wounded. Others have used AI and natural language processing to encode honeybee robots with honeybee language, enabling them to enter hives and communicate simple commands. They can even successfully share information around the hive to tell the bees where they should go to harvest nectar.

“As businesses grapple with how to assess, monitor, and mitigate damage to nature—particularly in upstream production—leveraging science such as bioacoustics can present a credible means to address degradation and biodiversity loss.”

-Laura Donnelly, Director, Nature

How Noise Impacts Nature

Among the intricate lessons from listening to natural systems, we are discovering the overarching macro impacts of human-generated noise on nature.

Studies have connected loud environments to increased risks of heart disease, heart attacks, and even dementia in people. Increasingly, research into bioacoustics is improving our understanding of how noise impacts nature as well.

Under the ocean, where species depend on sound to navigate their worlds, noise disturbance is particularly disruptive and even deadly. Noise from shipping, recreational boating, mining, and energy exploration can impact the ability of ocean animals to find mates, locate food, avoid predators, and communicate with each other.

For example, studies have shown that noise can disrupt the migration routes of whales, isolate them from their mates and peers, and even cause hearing loss. Even plants, like seagrass, are affected by noise: a recent study found that they suffer significant damage when exposed to even low-frequency artificial sounds. Combining this with the fact that noise can travel hundreds of miles from the source, marine noise disturbance can injure species far from its epicenter, including the species that live in the deep sea. In fact, extremely loud noises, like drilling, have been found to kill zooplankton almost three-quarters of a mile away.

Above ground, the acoustic chaos of industry is no better for the nature around it. At airports, for example, birds are losing their songs. They are also becoming more aggressive, which could indicate that noise disturbance can cause behavior changes and physiological stress in other species, just as it does with people. Similarly, studies have shown that drones can increase heart rates and impact the behavior of wildlife. Wind turbines are also found to produce noise that can impact wildlife and nearby habitats. One study suggests that mapping the presence of species and their auditory sensitivity should be required before constructing wind turbine farms.

Leveraging Bioacoustics for Good

Not only can decoding how natural systems experience and use sound expose the depths of our impacts on the planet; it could also help us to restore what has been harmed or lost.

Scientists are already using digital bioacoustics to support efforts to protect and regenerate nature. For example, acoustics technology can pinpoint the location of whales and alert ships when they are on a collision course. Studies have also shown that playing with the sounds of healthy coral reefs can attract young fish to abandoned reefs.

Above the water, scientists have used sound recordings of rainforests to monitor rainforest biodiversity and how wildlife may be impacted by events such as logging, or cutting trees down for timber. We also have a better understanding of how changes in the environment can impact natural communication systems. For example, reduced cloud cover or the loss of plant life can reduce the absorption of sound, which can increase noise and reverberation, confusing and disorienting local species. This has implications for climate change and how we monitor harmful business practices that can lead to biodiversity loss.

How Bioacoustics Can Change the Game for Sustainable Business

With the emerging ability to listen to nature, we can better gauge the health of species, ecosystems, and the wider natural environment. We can also better track climate change, biodiversity loss, and improve environmental monitoring.

Business should expect increased scrutiny of how operations can impact the health of natural systems,  particularly affecting noisy industries, like resource extraction, travel and transportation, manufacturing, and construction.

New evidence of impacts could be used in litigation to defend Nature’s Rights, while acquiring approval for new developments might require a new level of due diligence. This might deter proposed mining of ocean floors to source minerals critical to new energies, particularly under the recently adopted High Seas Treaty, through which United Nations member countries have agreed to protect the ocean outside national boundaries.

Environmental and sustainability monitoring and reporting may also become more precise in how business should avoid and mitigate impacts to nature. Science Based Targets for Nature (SBTN), for example, aims to present companies with another avenue for assessing and addressing environmental impacts.

Through the emerging field of bioacoustics, scientists are rediscovering what Indigenous communities have long known through ongoing dialogue with the nonhuman world. As we mine data to potentially reconnect with nature, there is an opportunity for business to elevate Indigenous teachings. This comes with the responsibility to respect Indigenous data sovereignty as we harvest data in territories under Indigenous ownership and stewardship.

Can business use data to further interfere with natural systems for commercial gain? Could ecosystems be acoustically hacked? Or might we make “bioacoustic engineering errors,” prompting nature to act in ways that are misguided? What are the risks of using AI to interpret what the natural world is telling us? Now is the time to ask whether the potential to communicate with the natural world might lead to new risks of exploitation.

This article was originally published at the BSR website "Sustainability Insights" and is written by Anna Iles, Associate Director, Futures at BSR, Kelly Metcalf, Manager at BSR, Laura Donnelly, Director, Nature at BSR.  



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