Dialling into nature

Michigan-based Prof Stuart Gage is working with a team of scientists in Australia on methods to automatically measure biological diversity with sound.

Prof Gage said the work was based on acoustic monitoring technology developed at Michigan State University, and would be advanced by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) research to intelligently monitor the sounds of diverse environments.

The project will see mobile phone ‘Smartphones’ placed in the environment to listen for animals such as birds and insects.

‘Measuring sound has the potential to revolutionise the way we monitor ecology and environmental change,’ Prof Gage said. ‘It’s like using a stethoscope to measure human health – the microphone is a stethoscope for the environment.’

Prof Gage said sound was relatively easy to measure and contained a great deal of information about the environment. ‘The human ear is commonly used to count the number of sound producing animals like amphibians, birds and insects, but it is impossible to simultaneously count them at multiple locations at multiple times of the day,’ he said.

‘Animals respond amazingly quickly to changes in the environment, and this sensor technology will allow us to monitor those changes rapidly and at many places simultaneously. For example, if the call a particular bird species disappears from the sound recordings, we will know that the environment has changed to cause that species to disappear. If new sounds occur, a new species may have arrived and displaced another. We can also monitor when migratory species arrive and depart from an environment.’

Prof Gage said solar-powered Smartphones were perfect for monitoring environments because they operated on Telstra’s Australia-wide wireless network, enabling researchers to monitor remote locations.

‘Software developed by QUT scientists enables the Smartphones to monitor the soundscape at regular intervals and to transmit the sounds to remote computers. The software will be able to identify the species of animals in the recorded sound.’

QUT Professor of Global Change Peter Grace said the project would allow researchers to investigate complex ecological systems and map how environments were affected by climate change and human activity. ‘When assessing and predicting the impact of climate change, we need accurate, cost effective information on how ecosystems are responding to these changes,’ Prof Grace said.

The study is being undertaken with the support of QUT, Telstra, Microsoft and Brisbane Airport Corporation.