News / Edmonton

Alberta researcher listening in on climate change

Erin Bayne pioneers use of nature sounds to track wildlife.

University of Alberta researcher Erin Bayne with a recording device.

Supplied.

University of Alberta researcher Erin Bayne with a recording device.

If a tree falls in the forest, a University of Alberta researcher just might hear it.

Erin Bayne, an associate professor of biological sciences, is behind a new initiative to use bioacoustics technology to record the soundscapes of Alberta, in what he hopes will become a new way to study wildlife.

“Technology has changed the way we survey for wildlife,” he says, “if it makes a sound, we can count it. This is giving us a whole new insight into animal behaviour.”

Audio recording may not be new, but the efficient batteries and low cost materials required to build a recording device you can strap to a tree and leave for a year, are.

Working in partnership with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, Bayne now has about 700 recording devices. He’ll start placing them for the year next month—in time to capture the owls who start to vocalize in late winter—and take them down in fall, after they’ve recording rutting season.

Bayne says nature is a surprisingly noisy place—Alberta has between 400 and 500 species that can be heard by his equipment, and there’s a lot of variation.

“June 1 at 5 a.m. sounds very different than the same spot in July at 2 p.m.,” he says.

The advantage of this system is it’s a consistent way of tracking wildlife and isn’t dependant on human observation, meaning species that signal at 2 a.m. will be monitored as often those that are active at noon.

Bayne says this will be especially helpful in tracking the effects of climate change, which will impact things like animal range and migration.

Now, the challenge becomes figuring out how to interpret all this new data. Bayne says he’s got people trying to teach computers how to listen to the audio.

“Just like Google translate turns Russian into French, we’re trying to teach computers things like what a Barred owl sounds like, and what a Barred owl sounds like when its windy, and what a Barred owl sounds like with a chickadee in the background.”

They’re also working on a new website where, eventually, all the files will be uploaded, so anyone can go online and hear, for example, what a specific forest sounds like at dawn.

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