Eavesdropping on remote wildlife

Hundreds of solar-powered sensors are being installed across remote parts of Australia to record a unique soundscape of the wildlife as the environment changes.

The Australian Acoustic Observatory, which will run the project for five years, is the world’s first “Google maps for sound”, says lead researcher Paul Roe, from Queensland University of Technology.

“The sensors will capture every frog croak, bird call, animal noise, and weather event to create a soundscape for each ecoregion,” he says.

Four hundred listening stations will be installed across 100 sites in seven different ecoregions across Australia. They are expected to record two petabytes of data, or the equivalent of 2000 years of sound. 

“The seven major ecoregions will cover desert, grasslands, shrublands and temperate, subtropical and tropical forests,” says Roe.

191127 audio sound recording australian acoustic observatory
400 sensors are expected to record the equivalent of 2000 years of sound.
Queensland University of Technology

“Many areas of Australia are remote and visited by perhaps one ecological expedition for a few days each year. These expeditions are now deploying acoustic sensors and will collect and replace sensors’ memory cards each year.

“This will allow us to hear what is happening in remote areas when, for example, rain makes the area inaccessible but interesting ecological events such as desert frogs emerging from the ground are occurring.” {%recommended 8917%}

Roe says the observatory will record what is happening to the environment. The soundscapes will also provide insights into how the environment is changing in response to climate change, land use and the arrival of feral species.

“We can analyse recorded sound in three different ways,” he says. “For some animal calls we can build recognisers to scan and pick out distinctive calls from recordings like the bellowing of koalas.

“In other cases, we can make sound available for citizen scientists to explore, listen to and identify calls. And finally, we can use QUT-developed software to analyse whole soundscapes to fingerprint the environment – an acoustic DNA.”

The sound data will then be stored in the cloud, and made available free to researchers, citizen scientists and the general public.

Roe says users will be able to play sound in the form of spectrograms which play sounds at a particular moment in time and place – the “Google street view” of sound – as well as visualise sound in the form of soundscapes – novel colour images that give a “Google Earth” view of the sounds in a location over time.

“Our sound map will allow users to zoom in on an area at a particular year, month or day and, in a few seconds, listen to the sounds of that particular moment in time.”

“We are expecting these soundscapes will be used and re-used in many creative ways.”


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