Avian acoustic indicators of human-induced stress

Avian acoustic indicators of human-induced stress

Avian acoustic indicators of human-induced stress 

Lead supervisor: Dr Katherine Herborn

Location: School of Biological & Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth

Duration: 8 weeks

Suitable undergraduate degrees: Computer Science, Environmental Science, Geography, Marine Biology.

Project background

An experienced birder can describe a bird community and chart the phenology of a species just by listening. Automating this skill, to cover larger temporal and spatial scales, has great potential for understanding and protecting populations.

Animals have a rich ‘vocabulary’ of alertness and alarm calls to signal different forms and intensities of stress, where emotional intensity may be further encoded in e.g. frequency shifts, call rate or lengths of pauses between calls. In agriculture, tools are being developed to link shifts in the overall soundscape of a barn, summing together all these indicators, to underlying health and environmental stressors. Acoustic monitoring in the greater complexity of the wild presents many challenges (Stowell et al., https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13103), but has been applied to species- and community-level monitoring for conservation. This project explores a potential overlap across contexts: whether stress can be monitored acoustically in wild populations.

Stress is of direct relevance to conservation: it imposes a physiological cost, hence impacts on fitness. If stress can be detected in overall soundscape, then acoustic monitoring would allow us to research these processes without the capture/blood-sampling required for traditional stress measurement. Moreover, there is a growing ethical argument that we should extend welfare principles from farmed to wild animals, i.e. detect and mitigate impacts of human-induced stress per se (Paquet & Darimont, Animal Welfare 2010, 19: 177-190). This includes impacts of conservation research (Soulsbury et al.,  https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13435). Non-invasive tools for monitoring stress in wild populations are therefore timely.

In this interdisciplinary project, you will test whether a mild/common human disturbance alters calls in wild birds. Dependent on interests, this may either be community-level response in woodland birds (number of species alarm calling) or population-level response in one species (Larus argentatus; escalation through alarm call types). At project outset, you will contribute to experimental design and ethical review for the disturbance manipulation, e.g. this may be a manipulation of proximity of people/dog walkers, or calls in response to transects walked through disturbed/undisturbed areas. You will conduct 3-4 weeks fieldwork to collect the acoustic data, and spend 3-4 weeks on data inspection, annotation of recordings, and analysis. The aim is to statistically compare both manual call counts and overall soundscape between control and disturbed recordings, potentially extending to machine learning dependent on your experience.

The project is supervised by Dr Katherine Herborn (SoBMS), Dr Sarah Collins (SoBMS) and Dr Ian Howard (SECAM). During the project, you will join the Plymouth Animal Behaviour research group.

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