Bioacoustics Research Program

elephant cutout

The Bioacoustics Research Program develops and uses digital technology, including equipment and software, to record and analyze the sounds of wildlife around the globe. By listening to wildlife, we advance the understanding of animal communication and monitor the health of wildlife populations. We help policy makers, industries, and governments use this information to minimize the impact of human activities on wildlife and natural environments.

Highlights

Wildlife Research & Conservation

Our scientists lead acoustic studies of whales, elephants, and birds to advance the understanding and protection of wildlife.

Saving the World’s Last North Atlantic Right Whales

We use our high-tech systems to hear, monitor, and protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. Fewer than 400 of these magnificent animals remain in the world, and they are difficult to see and track as they migrate along the Atlantic seaboard. Our sound-detection systems provide valuable information about the whales’ numbers, locations, and activities along the East Coast. We use this information to understand how whales are affected by disturbance and noise pollution from energy exploration, shipping, and other human activities, and to advise industry and government on how to minimize harm to marine wildlife. In collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and energy providers Excelerate Energy and Suez Energy, we have established a right whale listening network in Massachusetts Bay. This network notifies these companies’ shipping vessels to slow down when right whales are detected nearby, preventing deadly collisions between whales and ships. Other ships in the area can also use the information to slow down and keep whales safe.

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Advising the Energy Industry on How to Keep Whales Safe

We use sound to monitor whales and other marine mammals in areas proposed for oil and gas drilling. By detailing the numbers and activity of whales in these areas, we can inform energy companies about how to avoid interfering with the whales’ needs to find food and communicate with one another. We advise ConocoPhillips and Imperial Oil, Inc. (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil) in Arctic waters off of Alaska and Canada.

Investigating Noise Pollution in the Ocean

In the underwater world, whales and many other animals rely on sound to communicate with one another. Yet the ocean is so noisy from shipping vessels, underwater energy exploration and development, sonar exploration, and other human activities that we are drowning out the sounds of whales. Right whales call to one another from 20 miles away or more, but scientists estimate that the area over which whales can hear one another has dropped by 90 percent because of noise pollution. The Bioacoustics Research Program is studying the responses of marine mammals to noise in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts. In collaboration with international partners, we are also studying the role of noise pollution in the chain of events that lead to atypical mass strandings of beaked whales in the Bahamas.

Discovering the World of Underwater Sounds Near New York City

In the first-ever study of sounds of wildlife in the waters near New York City, we are using autonomous recording units to learn about the world of marine wildlife near this major metropolitan area. In the first year, we were excited to detect a blue whale, fin whales, and humpback whales. Using this crucial information about how endangered marine mammals use these very busy waters, we will assist regulators in making informed decisions about human activities in these areas.

Listening to the Voices of Endangered Forest Elephants

In the dense forests of Central Africa, endangered forest elephants are difficult to study and protect because they are so difficult to see. We use sound-recording technology to listen for their vocalizations, giving us valuable information about their numbers, movements, and how they communicate with one another. We use this information to improve our understanding of elephants and to ensure their voices are heard in conservation decisions related to logging, hunting, and seismic exploration.

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Deciphering the Songs of Birds

Male birds use their melodious songs to attract females and defend their territories against rivals. How can their songs serve such different functions? We use microphone arrays to capture the dynamic interactions among singing Banded Wrens in Costa Rica to find out how males communicate with one another. We have investigated the dawn chorus, the meaning behind duets between males and females, and the ability of males to show their intentions to fight by matching the songs of their neighbors.

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Technology Development

Our engineers develop new devices and software to autonomously record and analyze the sounds of animals on land, in the ocean, and in the air. These digital tools are revolutionizing conservation efforts around the world.

Creating Automated Devices for Recording Animal Sounds

We develop the technology to remotely record the sounds of animals on land or in the ocean. Our underwater “pop-up” devices record sounds from the ocean floor, then pop up to the surface when the data are ready to be retrieved. Researchers have used pop-ups in more than 20 countries worldwide to monitor the sounds of marine wildlife as well as human-caused noise pollution.

In collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, we developed an auto-detection buoy system to detect vocalizing right whales in near real-time. This enables us to notify ships of the presence of whales within a 5 nautical mile listening range of the buoy, alerting them to slow down and avoid deadly collisions with these endangered whales.

To record the sounds of animals on land, we developed devices that can be programmed and left in remote locations to record the sounds of rare and elusive wildlife for months at a time. We have used these devices to monitor endangered forest elephants, to detect the presence of endangered Black-capped Vireos and Golden-cheeked Warblers, and to document the calls of migratory songbirds as they migrate overhead at night.

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Developing Digital Tools to Analyze Animal Sounds

We create software applications for biologists and the interested public to visually display, measure, and analyze sounds. With support from the National Science Foundation, we created Raven and Raven Lite, powerful user-friendly research and teaching tools for understanding sounds. We also created the XBAT sound analysis application to enable scientists with diverse needs to analyze large-scale data sets recorded on land or under water. We have used XBAT to study the dawn chorus of birds, to listen for endangered right whales, and to explore the effects of underwater noise on humpback whales. With support from the Leon Levy Foundation and Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation, we are enhancing XBAT to detect, classify, and locate nocturnally migrating birds based on their calls.

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Generating New Lightweight Tags to Track Bird Migrations

In collaboration with a group of international scientists, we are developing very small radio frequency tags to track birds over great distances. Currently the tags utilize computers that record sunrise and sunset data that can be used to calculate the location of the bird. The data can be downloaded from the tag without capturing the bird.

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Teaching

We train students in science and conservation, offer professional training workshops for sound analysis, and develop exhibits for the general public.

Training Future Leaders in Science and Conservation

We engage undergraduates in hands-on research and advise graduate students in bioacoustics research. Our students lead diverse studies, including the effects of noise pollution on marine wildlife, threats to endangered forest elephant populations, and vocal communication among birds.

Sound Analysis Workshops

To help scientists use the latest technologies to record and analyze the sounds of wildlife, we offer professional workshops. In addition to leading workshops at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology attended by professionals from as far away as New Zealand, we have also traveled to Cuba to train biologists in wildlife-monitoring techniques.

Sharing the Science of Sound through Exhibits

Our Raven Exhibit system visually displays and records wildlife sounds for exhibits in science museums, zoos, aquaria, nature centers, and other educational venues. Raven Exhibit software is used in our popular sound studio in the Visitors’ Center at the Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity. To inquire about Raven Exhibit, contact Tim Krein.

Equipment Leasing

We enable scientists around the world to study the sounds of animals by leasing and licensing state-of-the-art equipment and software.

Equipment Leasing

equipment leasingWe enable researchers to study and monitor wildlife by leasing our sound-recording and analysis tools. We provide equipment, software, and technical support to organizations including The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, and U.S. Army. Learn more about the availability of our software and hardware.

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