Digital technology is enabling scientists to detect and interpret the sounds of species as diverse as honey bees, peacocks, and elephants.
Karen Bakker is a geographer who studies digital innovation and environmental governance. Her latest book, The Sounds of Life, trawls through more than a thousand scientific papers and Indigenous knowledge to explore our emerging understanding of the planet’s soundscape.
Microphones are now so cheap, tiny, portable, and wirelessly connected that they can be installed on animals as small as bees, and in areas as remote as underneath Arctic ice. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence software can now help decode the patterns and meaning of the recorded sounds. These technologies have opened the door to decoding non-human communication — in both animals and plants — and understanding the damage that humanity’s noise pollution can wreak.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Bakker, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of British Columbia, describes how researchers are constructing dictionaries of animal communication, focusing on elephants, honey bees, whales, and bats. “I think it’s quite likely,” she says, “that within 10 years, we will have the ability to do interactive conversations with these four species.”
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