New research fund to illuminate how bright lights cause sleepless nights

City lights may make you feel safe, but they might also keep animals up at night.

Anne Aulsebrook, from the University of Melbourne’s School of Biosciences, is researching the effects of artificial light on the daily rhythms of urban birds.

‘Artificial light at night can shift the timing of animal behaviour and pose a significant threat to wildlife, but its impacts remain poorly understood,’ said Ms Aulsebrook. ‘For example, songbirds will start singing earlier and remain active for longer. Animals that are active for longer each day should have less time to sleep.’

She said rhythms that can be affected include the sleep-wake cycle, metabolism, immune function, and cardiovascular systems, all of which are regulated by melatonin levels that are influenced by light.

‘Some animals can make good use of the time, such as having more time to forage, but that then might have negative impacts on other species,’ she said.

Ms Aulsebrook is one of around 100 students to share in more than $1 million in funds from the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment, announced today by the Ecological Society of Australia. Her research will focus on the impact of artificial light on black swans in Melbourne’s Albert Park Lake, and pigeons. 

‘In the past 150 years, since the introduction of electric light, we’ve gone from having a very predictable light-dark cycle to having many places in the world where true darkness doesn’t exist anymore’ said Ms Aulsebrook. ‘This can have a huge impact, as life evolved with a predictable light-dark cycle.’

She said impacts may be exacerbated by increasing use of LEDs. ‘Early electric lights emitted more orange to red light, which is like moonlight. But LED lights emit in the blue area of the spectrum, which is more like daylight. This has a much bigger impact on daily rhythms and sleep.’

She said the good news is that the colour of LED lights can be adjusted. ‘We can filter LEDs to block out the blue area of spectrum, in the way some smart phones have a night shift function.’

‘We have the potential to make a real change. A lot of environmental impacts make us feel powerless, but with artificial light, anyone using lights can contribute to solving the problem. Hopefully, the lights we choose can make a difference to animals that can’t close their curtains.’

Dr Bill Holsworth has supported more than 830 students since establishing the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment with his wife Carol in 1989. The fund is now managed through a partnership with the Ecological Society of Australia. More information about the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment is available at