Photo: Kristian Bell

The sounds of nature captured in world’s first national acoustic observatory

Ecologists and computer scientists have joined forces to map the sounds of the landscape. They are building an Australian acoustic observatory, consisting of an array of 400 microphones across the country to track changes to ecosystems.

‘This national observatory is unique. We will have continuous high-quality sound recordings at 100 sites by the middle of next year,’ said Professor David Watson, an ecological researcher from Charles Sturt University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society.

Professor Watson will today announce the establishment of the national acoustic observatory at the joint conference of the Ecological Society of Australia and the New Zealand Ecological Society in the Hunter Valley.

‘In the past, ecologists focussed on single species and habitats. This new technology allows us to study nature in a way never before possible,’ said Professor Watson.

An immediate application of the microphone array is in remote and inaccessible regions of Northern Australia, tracking the spread of introduced Cane Toads and monitoring their effects at the ecosystem scale.

‘You can listen to recordings from wetlands before and after the arrival of invasive species. It really is chalk and cheese. As well as tracking cane toads, we will be able to monitor other feral animals such as cats and foxes, and elusive native species, including the rare southern Black-throated Finch which we just detected near Townsville.’

‘This is not just scientists doing work for scientists; the point is to involve anyone who has any interest in nature to think about how they can contribute. It could be a school teacher, an artist … anyone.’

‘The project will show us the effects of invasive species, climate change and other changes on ecosystems. We have a tool that will let people answer all sorts of questions about ecological conservation and management.’

‘I see a growing array of sensors and information that will allow the best ecological minds in the country to explore the landscape and changes in ways never before imaginable.’

Ecoacoustics uses sensors to generate high-resolution recordings of entire ecosystems that can be shared, analysed and archived for future comparisons.

The Australian Research Council together with investment from a consortium of five universities has provided $2 million for this innovative program.

‘There is amazing growth in ecoacoustic technology. There are frog and bat identification apps on smartphones. In future, we could look at adding mobile microphones to our permanent arrays.’

‘We are establishing a multi-decade archive. People will be able to go back to recordings made in the past and explore longer-term patterns and changes.’

‘We can prepare fascinating visualisations that contain months of data in a single picture. Side by side is a soundscape of the environment with and without changes, such as toads or feral cats. You can hear the changes and you can see them, and you can use this information to inform policy.’

Professor David Watson is collaborating with Professor Lin Schwarzkopf, James Cook University, Townsville; Associate Professor Richard Fuller, University of Queensland; Associate Professor Paul McDonald, University of New England; and Professor Paul Roe, Queensland University of Technology.

EcoTAS 2017, the joint conference of the Ecological Society of Australia and the New Zealand Ecological Society, is being held from 26 November to 1 December in the Hunter Valley, NSW. The Conference Program is available at: