News this Week

Science  21 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6173, pp. 822

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Leicester, U.K.
    A Royal's Genome
    2 - Ottawa
    Canada to Set Up Billion-Dollar Research Fund
    3 - Washington, D.C.
    U.S. Cracks Down on Sales of Ivory, Rhino Horn

    Leicester, U.K.

    A Royal's Genome


    What color were Richard III's eyes and hair? Was he lactose intolerant? Did he have a high risk of diabetes or heart disease? All these questions and more may be answered after researchers at the University of Leicester sequence the entire genome of the deceased king of England, whose skeleton was unearthed last year. If successful, Richard III—who reigned during the 15th century—will become the first famous historical figure whose remains have undergone a complete genetic analysis. The study is expected to last about a year and a half and cost more than $160,000.


    Canada to Set Up Billion-Dollar Research Fund

    The Canadian government plans to shell out $1.36 billion over 10 years to create a Canada First Research Excellence Fund. Its goal is to "position Canada's post-secondary institutions to compete with the best in the world for talent and breakthrough discoveries," according to budget documents. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the fund would "help [institutions] excel globally in research areas that create long-term economic advantages for Canada."

    The new fund is the latest example of a large research program to serve national goals set up outside the regular channel of competitive grants to individual scientists. The Canada Foundation for Innovation has supported research infrastructure since 1997, and in 2000 the Canada Research Chairs program was launched to enable leading universities to snare talent. Exactly where the new fund fits won't be known until the government provides more details.

    Funding won't begin to flow until 2015, and the first tranche will be a modest $45 million. That amount is expected to ramp up to $182 million in the 2018 to 2019 budget.

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. Cracks Down on Sales of Ivory, Rhino Horn


    The black rhinoceros.


    The U.S. government has a new national strategy to combat the surging trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn, and other wildlife products. Such trade is decimating elephant and rhino populations: Some 35,000 elephants are slaughtered each year, while 1000 rhinoceros were poached in South Africa alone last year.

    As part of the strategy unveiled last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will ban commercial trade of elephant ivory in the United States, including resale and exports. Commercial elephant ivory in any form, including antiquities, can no longer be imported. Only items documented to be more than 100 years old will be allowed to be sold in the United States.

    New regulations will also be enacted to stop the illicit shipments of fish, birds, reptiles, snakes, and coral through the United States.

  2. Random Sample

    They Said It

    "This seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies."

    —Senator Charles "Chuck" Grassley, in a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services last week, questioning whether a 3-year ban from participating in federally funded research was adequate punishment for a former Iowa State University researcher, Dong-Pyou Han, who admitted to committing fraud in an HIV vaccine study.

    Fossil Trove Discovered in Canada


    Paleontologists have unearthed a colossal cache of fossilized arthropods—a group of invertebrates that includes insects, crustaceans, and arachnids—in the Canadian Rockies' Marble Canyon. The fossil trove, described last week in Nature Communications, may surpass the nearby Burgess Shale—one of the world's most famous fossil repositories, home to more than 60,000 fossils of creatures that lived 500 million years ago. During a mere 15 days of collecting in Marble Canyon, scientists say they documented a whopping 50 species from that period.

    Microbial Super Bowl in Space


    In 2012, Darlene Cavalier approached Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, about applying to do research on the International Space Station. At first Eisen wanted to compare microbes from the space station with bugs from indoor spaces on Earth. But at Cavalier's urging—and with the help of professional cheerleaders—Project MERCCURI now includes a microbial Super Bowl, to begin next month.

    Cavalier is the founder of Science Cheerleader—a group of current and former professional cheerleaders pursuing science and technology careers. For the past year, she and her fellow cheerleaders have collected or helped fans and students collect microbes from football stadiums, basketball courts, and baseball fields around the United States. One microbe from each arena is heading to space in March, where they will compete to see which one grows the fastest. Project MERCCURI has come out with baseball cards featuring pictures and statistics for each microbial contestant.

    "I had my skepticism" about collaborating with cheerleaders, Eisen recalls. But at the sports events where the samples were collected, thousands of people have gotten acquainted with the microbial world. "And the passion the cheerleaders have for outreach is unlike anything I have ever seen."


    Join us on Thursday, 27 February, at 3 p.m. EST for a live chat with experts on a hot topic in science.

  3. Newsmakers

    Three Q's



    Russia's scientific community is in the throes of upheaval. The powerful Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) has merged with two sister academies that serve medical and agricultural research under a reform law that also created a new agency to oversee the combined academies and their assets. Science last week caught up with RAS president and plasma physicist Vladimir Fortov.

    Q:Why is the government reforming RAS?

    V.F.:Reforms were happening in the Russian Academy of Sciences, but they were not so conspicuous to society and to the leaders of the country. That is why the leadership introduced its own plan of action. It was the plan for more rapid and more radical reforms, without appropriate consultations with scientists.

    Q:Has RAS ceased to exist?

    V.F.:On 8 February, the Russian Academy of Sciences celebrated its 290th anniversary. Will it be able to celebrate its 300th anniversary 10 years from now? Much depends on the interpretation and implementation of the law on reform.

    Q:To what extent will research directions continue to be decided by the researchers?

    V.F.:It's one of the most complicated and pressing questions. We'll see how it'll work in practice. But according to the general health of the economy, the financial support of science is hardly likely to trend upward. So some directions will suffer.

    Extended interview at

    NIST Director Heading to Steel Country



    Patrick Gallagher, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) since 2009, is leaving for academia. Gallagher, 50, will become chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) starting 1 August.

    After earning a Ph.D. in physics from Pitt in 1991, Gallagher joined NIST in 1993 as a research physicist. As NIST director, Gallagher oversees some 3000 scientists, engineers, and support staff at two main labs in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado. NIST has a budget of more than $850 million for fiscal year 2014.

  4. AAAS | 2014 Annual Meeting

    The AAAS annual meeting, held in Chicago, Illinois, from 13 to 17 February, attracted roughly 7600 participants, including scientists, journalists, and visitors to Family Science Days activities. Here are some highlights from the meeting. You can find more AAAS coverage, including reports from sessions, live chats, and responses to "What's the Coolest Science Fact You Know?" at

    Shrinking Arctic Ice Exposes Seals to Deadly Parasite

    New menace.

    The parasite Sarcocystis pinnipedi (inset) causes liver failure in gray seals.


    In March 2012, wildlife pathologists arriving at Hay Island off Nova Scotia met an eerie sight: Roughly a fifth of the gray seals laying on the rocky outcrop were dead. Michael Grigg of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, and colleagues discovered that they were infested with a moon-shaped parasite, a new strain of the genus Sarcocystis, which "completely destroys the architecture" of their livers, Grigg says. The parasite is known to be harmless to ring seals, historically isolated from gray seals, which inhabit warmer waters. But as ice covering the Arctic disappears, gray seals have entered the ring seals' territory. The new mixing of species exposes them to new diseases, says biological oceanographer Sue Moore of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. More research linking climate change to marine mammal health is critical, she adds, as some estimate all Arctic ice will be gone in 20 years.

    Portraits and Their Parasites


    Daguerreotypes may seem frozen in time, but their surfaces are living landscapes. Popular in the mid-19th century, daguerreotypes were a precursor to photography created by layering silver on a copper plate and exposing it to light and various chemicals, often including gold. Many have become fuzzy or faded with time, and now researchers have discovered one reason why: Their surfaces are teeming with life. Fungi and various unidentified life forms eat and digest the metals, then excrete gold and silver nanoparticles that disfigure the image. The good news is that the precise mixture of life forms on an unidentified daguerreotype may offer clues to where it was made. And the parasites may even suggest new ways to manufacture nanoparticles through biological processes.

    The Benefits of Baby Banter

    Infants aren't known for being skilled conversationalists, but that doesn't mean that they don't benefit from early conversations. According to new research from Stanford University's Anne Fernald, differences in how parents talk to their babies—linked to the family's socioeconomic status (SES)—may help explain differences in school performance and career success.

    Babies who are spoken to frequently in an engaging way, generally from a higher SES, tend to develop faster word-processing skills, which directly relate to the development of vocabulary and language, memory, and even nonverbal cognitive abilities. Fernald and colleagues measured parent-baby banter from round-the-clock recordings in babies' homes, then used an eye-tracking test to see how well they followed a prompt to look at a picture.

    By 2 years of age, high SES children were 6 months ahead of low SES counterparts; by age 3, differences in processing abilities were predictive of later performance in and out of school. The group hopes this research will lead to interventions that shrink the language gap between kids on either side of the income gap.

    A Science-Religion Detente? Survey Suggests It's Possible

    The science-religion wars are as old as science itself, but an ambitious new survey suggests that the rift can be bridged. In collaboration with the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University in Houston, Texas, surveyed more than 10,000 Americans, including 574 scientists, on their views of science and religion. The early results confirm that scientists—including engineers, doctors, and others with technical training—have more unbelievers in their ranks than the general population. But almost 75% of these scientists professed some religion, and 17% identified as evangelical Christians. And while large fractions of both scientists and evangelicals see science and religion as in conflict (about 25% and 30%, respectively), even larger fractions say there is room for collaboration. On some issues, common ground will be hard to reach: Forty-three percent of evangelicals surveyed believe God created the universe and all of life within the last 10,000 years. But as Ecklund put it, what you make of the results "depends on whether you feel the cup is half empty or half full."

    A Retro View of the Cosmos

    Telescopes have come a long way since Galileo Galilei confirmed the heliocentric worldview using a tube and two pieces of glass. But studying these crude gadgets may allow us to experience the skies through his eyes. A group of science historians has compiled the most extensive database of early refracting telescopes to date—an online collection called Dioptrice. It contains about 1300 telescopes—both physical artifacts from museums and private collections and images from books and art.

    Early observers.

    A 1692 depiction of Galileo (left) with refracting telescopes.


    Now, they plan to test how well some of these devices transmitted distant light. Using adaptive optics, the technology behind today's large telescopes, they will feed a light source, such as an image of a planet, into a telescope and observe how it gets distorted after passing through 400-year-old glass. Such tests could reveal precisely what Galileo—and the stargazing naysayers of his time—saw when they peered at the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus.

    Thwarting Genome Hackers

    Ever cheaper genetic sequencing technology could help detect diseases and save lives, but not everyone is comfortable with releasing their biological blueprints to the world. Now, cryptologists are perfecting a privacy tool that puts genetic information in a secure yet functional format.

    Today, most genetic sequences are simply anonymized before being sent out for analysis. But a little genetic sleuthing can link data to its owner. In the new technique, called homomorphic encryption, computers can perform addition and multiplication on encrypted data. By approximating genetic testing algorithms with these basic operations, a computer can return encrypted results without ever decoding the information. At first, the method seemed too time-consuming to be practical, but a variation geared toward faster performance promises to be "a huge tool in our toolbox," says cryptologist Kristin Lauter of Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington. She predicts it will begin to see wide-scale adoption within 10 years.

    Virtual Bodies Come to Life

    The motion capture technology that brought Na'vi to life in the film Avatar has another use in the lab: creating fine-scale, highly personalized models of how a body moves. Using professional ballerinas as test subjects, computer scientist Nadia Magnenat Thalmann of the University of Geneva in Switzerland and colleagues have created virtual models of bodies in motion—not just their external shape but also dynamics hidden in their joints.

    They used MRI to generate a model of the muscles, cartilage, and bone in each dancer's hip. Then, by adding data from a motion sensor suit, they watched how stress was distributed within the tissues as she performed. Many ballerinas need hip replacement surgery in their early teens, Thalmann says, and the model can show them which movements put them at risk of damage. Analyzing the data takes about a month, she adds, but it may someday be used for quick clinical assessments.

    What's the Coolest Science Fact You Know?

    Science asked meeting attendees to share their favorite science fact. Here are a few of the responses. To see the whole collection of videos and tweets, visit

    "The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone."

    —Monterey Bay Aquarium Communications Director Ken Peterson

    "There are bacteria that expand or contract depending on if they're wet or dry. … One pound of these bacteria, when they're made wet, can lift a car 3 feet. These can help you change your tire!"

    —Actor and science communicator Alan Alda

    "The actual brain takes about 20 watts of power in order to do all the fancy things it does. If we want to simulate that on a computer these days, it's going to take something like a full power plant in order to power that computer."

    —University of Waterloo neuroscientist Terrence Stewart

    "My fave science fact is that science is not just cool facts, its how we know anything is a fact."

    —Science enthusiast Eric Lawton (@Eric0Lawton)
  5. Eavesdropping on Ecosystems

    1. Kelly Servick

    Researchers are collecting terabytes of recordings, from bird chirps to chainsaw roars. The emerging field of soundscape ecology has a lot to offer … and a lot to prove.

    Ears in the sky.

    Soundscape ecologist Bryan Pijanowski installs a fuzzy microphone on a research tower in Borneo earlier this year.


    Michael Scherer-Lorenzen was one of 80 scientists appealing for funding from the German Science Foundation at a review meeting in Potsdam, Germany, last November. But his pitch was the only one that began with the harsh, throaty sounds of barking roe deer.

    The midnight recording lasted just a few seconds, but it demonstrated exactly the kind of data the University of Freiburg researcher proposed to collect with a network of 300 microphones scattered across Germany. Each would record 1 minute of sound every hour for a year, he explained, capturing nearly 44,000 hours in all. The payoff: detailed "soundscapes" that could help researchers relate bird, insect, and other animal populations to patterns of land management in Germany's forests and grasslands. "It would be really cool," he says, to use sound as a convenient proxy for measuring biodiversity.

    Scheren-Lorenzen isn't the only researcher enticed by the emerging field of soundscape ecology. Advances in cheap, tough automated recorders and powerful sound-analysis software are inspiring scientists to launch increasingly ambitious efforts that use sound to document and analyze ecosystems. Rather than focus on the calls of one or a few species at a time—as in many traditional bioacoustics projects—soundscape ecologists are trying to describe the cacophony of entire landscapes, including nonbiological sounds such as rushing water, thunderclaps, and even the drone of cars and airplanes.

    They hope to find more efficient ways to characterize an ecosystem than spending countless hours tromping through, and potentially disturbing, the landscape. Instead, they aim to find unique patterns hidden in the acoustic realm—and then track how they change in response to disruptions, such as increasing air traffic or construction projects, the arrival of invasive species, or the gradual effects of climate change. Researchers want to quantify "what we experience ourselves as we go through the day and listen," says soundscape ecologist Bryan Pijanowski of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

    But studying whole soundscapes poses major technical and conceptual challenges. Researchers are struggling to find practical ways to boil down huge collections of digital recordings into something they can use. Converting complex soundscapes into relatively simple numerical indices of biodiversity is proving difficult. And soundscape ecologists have sometimes strained to persuade their colleagues, who may see little original in the approach, that large-scale networks of microphones can tell a meaningful story. Not that long ago, "there were many in the bioacoustics community that just said ‘No, no, no! This is not a new idea at all,’" Pijanowski says.

    Sound foundations

    Scientists have long observed how animals produce and perceive sound, and analyzed their communication patterns. The first field recordings of birdsong date back nearly a century. But for the most part, bioacoustics studies focused on individual species, mining a recording for particular calls of interest.

    That species-level approach misses the forest for the trees, says Bernie Krause, a studio musician-turned-natural sound recordist who is often credited with developing the concepts behind modern soundscape ecology. "This reductionist, detached, and fragmented way of looking at the world is really incoherent," he says.

    Instead, Krause has proposed a theory of "acoustic partitioning," which he first published in the magazine Whole Earth Review in 1987. Inspired by the complex soundscapes he heard in Kenya while collecting sound for a science museum exhibit, he suggested that natural sound be viewed as a resource shared among vocal organisms, like a nesting habitat or a food supply. An animal must carve out its own aural niche, he wrote, for example by using a signature frequency or by signaling at a particular time of day, to avoid interference from other sounds.

    Everything in its place. A recording from the Sumatran rainforest illustrates the acoustic niche hypothesis, in which different kinds of animals utilize different parts of the sound spectrum. Bats, for instance, call at higher frequencies while orangutans user lower frequency sound.Audio File

    In Krause's view, a healthy ecosystem would be clearly partitioned into niches by frequency or time. In contrast, a disrupted area would have gaps at some frequencies, where species had been lost. And when invasive newcomers or human-generated sounds intrude on a niche, the existing patterns might shift.

    Everything in its place.

    A recording from the Sumatran rainforest illustrates the acoustic niche hypothesis, in which different kinds of animals utilize different parts of the sound spectrum. Bats, for instance, call at higher frequencies while orangutans user lower frequency sound.


    Many scientists were skeptical, seeing only anecdotal evidence for the theory. "It was completely rejected as a nice, aesthetic idea," Krause recalls. "But then, to be fair, I really didn't have, at the time, a way to express what I was finding … in the language of [scientific] publications."

    But the idea intrigued some researchers, including Stuart Gage, a soundscape ecologist and professor emeritus at Michigan State University in East Lansing and one of the field's earliest champions. In the early 2000s, he worked with Krause to develop what he calls "a taxonomy of sound." By analyzing the distribution of frequencies in their recordings, the pair broke the soundscape into three components: "biophony," or wild animal sounds (usually found at high frequencies); "geophony," or geophysical sounds like wind, rain, and rushing water (which stretch across a wide frequency range); and "anthrophony," or human-produced sounds (generally lower frequency).

    Gage developed computer programs that quantified the amount of acoustic energy within certain frequency ranges; then he and Krause set out to compare natural and human-created sounds in a landscape. The effort was labor intensive. The pair gathered their soundscapes in California's Sequoia National Park using nearly 5 kilograms of recording equipment, which they had to babysit in the field. Its drawbacks became abundantly clear one evening, Gage recalls, when he found himself standing alone in a meadow waiting for a curious black bear to finish molesting the recorder he'd placed on a nearby rock. "He smelled it, he licked it, he slobbered all over it," Gage says. "Then he whacked it."

    Luckily, the bear didn't break it; his muffled snorts and loud smack were immortalized in the recording. But Gage and others were already dreaming of systems that would be less likely to draw a bear's attention: small recorders that could be hidden in the field for weeks or months at a time, collecting hours of high-fidelity sound with almost no human supervision. He began experimenting with automated setups, connecting recording gear to laptop computers, but these were prohibitively bulky, power-hungry, and fragile.

    Such problems caught the attention of Ian Agranat, an entrepreneur and technologist with an interest in birdsong. In 2003, Agranat had founded a company called Wildlife Acoustics, planning to make hand-held recorders for amateur bird enthusiasts. But he soon spotted a more promising market: scientists. Field recording equipment was "cobbled together by biologists who … knew a little bit about technology," he recalls. In 2007, he offered something better: the Song Meter, a $600 weatherproof recorder in a lunchbox-sized metal case. When Gage first saw one, he decided he could "stop being an engineer and go back to being an ecologist." Agranat has since sold more than 12,000 of the devices to researchers in some 60 countries.

    The Song Meter now has plenty of company. Researchers can deploy a variety of powerful yet affordable sensors, some emphasizing portability, others designed for specific frequency ranges or extreme environments. Such technologies mark "the start of the story" for soundscape science, says Jérôme Sueur, an ecologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

    A magic number?

    Sueur was among the first researchers to seize on the new recorders to scale up his studies, hoping to show that sound could be a proxy for biodiversity. Sueur and his colleagues weren't interested in exactly which species were calling. Instead, he says they wanted "to take a global measure of the acoustic output of the community." Their goal was an algorithm that could boil hours of acoustic data down to a single number describing how an ecosystem's acoustic energy is distributed across the frequency spectrum and over time.

    Planting ears.

    Engineer Philippe Gaucher uses a crossbow to hang a microphone from the forest canopy in French Guiana. A recorder (blue box, right) is mounted on a tree.


    Sueur's team named their measure the Acoustic Entropy Index. It is based on what's called a Shannon index, which turns an inventory of the animals sighted in an area into an estimate of species diversity. In Sueur's index, sounds at various frequencies take the place of animal species. A single, pure tone, for example, scores close to zero, representing low acoustic diversity. A noisy, chaotic, and more diverse soundscape should approach the highest possible score of 1.

    In 2007, Sueur's team ran their first real-world test of the index in Tanzania, recording dawn and dusk sounds over several days in two coastal forests that are separated by 50 kilometers—and a lot of history. Loggers had exploited one for decades, but had been cutting trees in the other for just a few years. Sure enough, in a 2008 paper the team reported that the less disturbed forest had significantly higher acoustic entropy scores than the logged forest.

    Day in the life.

    A false-color spectrogram made from a recording in the Australian bushland highlights the daily variation in the soundscape. Colors indicate values drawn from three acoustic indices, each sensitive to different types of sound. The chirps of crickets (yellow) dominate between dusk and dawn. As the sun rises, a bird call chorus (green) fills the air. Rainstorms strike in the afternoon; the black, low-frequency marks at the bottom of the image are produced by waterdrops hitting the recorder.


    Day in the life. A false-color spectrogram made from a recording in the Australian bushland highlights the daily variation in the soundscape. Colors indicate values drawn from three acoustic indices, each sensitive to different types of sound. The chirps of crickets (yellow) dominate between dusk and dawn. As the sun rises, a bird call chorus (green) fills the air. Rainstorms strike in the afternoon; the black, low-frequency marks at the bottom of the image are produced by waterdrops hitting the recorder. Dawn Audio File Rainstorm Audio File Cicadas Audio File

    Since then, soundscape ecologists have developed a bouquet of indices based on different properties of the soundscape. At the University of Urbino in Italy, Almo Farina has developed an Acoustic Complexity Index based on sound qualities that can distinguish animal vocalizations from human-generated noise: Many animal sounds exhibit quick spikes in intensity (think of the abrupt crescendo of a bird's song) while many human-generated sounds, such as a droning engine, remain flat.

    From Sueur's group came an Acoustic Dissimilarity Index, which compares two ecosystems based on differences in the timing and frequency of their sounds. In field tests, the index provided a ready way to estimate the number of species found in one community but not in the other.

    The acoustic arsenal

    Such acoustic measures can be powerful tools, but have their pitfalls, says Aaron Rice, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University. Many indices assume that biological sounds have shorter durations than humanmade ones. But in Rice's own marine acoustics research, the punctuated bursts of seismic air guns used for oil and gas exploration were a problematic exception. His conclusion: Indices are most useful when researchers have a good sense of the sources of sound they are likely to encounter. "Going into a place where you're recording somewhat blindly may not work," he warns.

    Similar limitations plague Sueur's Acoustic Entropy Index, which turned out to be highly sensitive to humanmade background noise. In fact, Sueur no longer believes he can create a single acoustic measure that is a reliable proxy for biodiversity. The "index is not a miracle," he says. "It would be stupid to try to summarize everything with a single value."

    Sueur does believe, however, that acoustic indices could become a useful element of a complete ecosystem portrait, especially when they are correlated with other indicators. For instance, Purdue's Pijanowski—once a graduate student under Gage—has discovered a relationship between acoustic diversity and vegetation structure. His team planted sound recorders at 14 sites in the Costa Rican rainforest and compared features of the soundscape with vegetation data from light detection and ranging (LiDAR) surveys. Hot spots for vocal species turned out to correlate with patches of forest with large gaps in the upper canopy and dense foliage in the lower canopy, the researchers reported in a 2012 paper.

    Such results make Pijanowski optimistic that sound recordings could someday shape management decisions by highlighting especially rich habitats or helping explain which features of a landscape support particular animal communities. In the last year, he says, there's been an "explosion of people who are willing to think like this—more holistically." One recent convert, Anne Axel of Marshall University, Huntington, in West Virginia, is using sound recordings to predict whether abandoned coal mines on Appalachian mountaintops still have potential value as habitats. She hopes to find out how the acoustic signatures of these pseudograsslands compare with their state "prior to people chopping off the tops of the mountains."

    Visible decline.

    In visualizations of underwater recordings from Fiji, the spectrum from a healthy reef includes fish activity in the top half of the image. A nearby dying reef features mostly low-frequency ocean waves.


    In visualizations of underwater recordings from Fiji, the spectrum from a healthy reef includes fish activity in the top half of the image. Audio File A nearby dying reef features mostly low-frequency ocean waves. Audio File

    Zoom out.

    Computer scientist Michael Towsey combines 8 months of continuous recordings at a research station in Brisbane, Australia, into a single image. Colors indicate different acoustic indices. At dawn (left curve), a morning bird chorus (blue) is obvious during the Australian spring and early summer (October through December), but fades later in the year. Horizontal green streaks indicate heavy rainfall in January and February. At dusk (right curve), cicada activity is evident in the spring and summer months (green); by winter, the night is increasingly silent.


    Perils of the long view

    The boom in sound-recording studies poses a challenge familiar in other fields: a glut of data. Pijanowsky's lab alone has amassed about 85 terabytes of sound—more than 100,000 hours—in just 5 years. "This is a science that's plagued by the big data challenges that you see in, say, genetics," he says. Many researchers already have libraries of field recordings that, if played in real time, would be longer than their careers. "We know that we're not going to be able to listen to it all," says computer scientist Michael Towsey of the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

    To get around that problem, he's developing ways to navigate soundscapes by sight, creating color-coded spectrograms that trained eyes can interpret at a glance. Towsey describes the visualizations as "acoustic weather" charts. Some show how the spectrum of sounds shifts over a single day, while others assemble daily records into long-term snapshots to capture changes between seasons or years. That's akin to studying the "acoustic climate," he notes. And "when we start thinking about the acoustic climate, then we can start thinking about acoustic climate change." Year-to-year comparisons could eventually highlight subtle and potentially problematic changes, he predicts, such as changing rain patterns or shifts in bird activity.

    Proving grounds

    To enable such long-term efforts, some soundscape researchers are eager to piggyback on existing ecological surveys, which can be large and relatively well funded. In the United States, biological oceanographer Susan Parks of Syracuse University in New York hopes to get acoustic sensors installed at the 106 sites planned for the National Ecological Observatory Network—an ambitious monitoring effort by the National Science Foundation that will fully launch in 2017. So far, however, Parks has the go-ahead to put her own recorders at just four sites. "The onus is upon me to show people that it would be a valuable research tool," Parks says. To do so, she will spend 2 years gathering and analyzing recordings to measure human-generated sound and find seasonal patterns in birdsong.

    Meanwhile, in Germany, Scherer-Lorenzen is strategizing about his first acoustic project. Thirty years after Bernie Krause first advanced his niche hypothesis, many soundscape experiments remain isolated case studies. Scherer-Lorenzen plans to take a broader view. By recording at locations where researchers funded by Germany's Biodiversity Exploratories have already collected data on flora and fauna, he aims to see how well soundscape indices describe biodiversity across multiple landscapes. He expects the German Science Foundation to reach a verdict on his proposal in March. By April, he hopes to be out sprinkling microphones across the German countryside.