EAR To the WILD, a groundbreaking smartphone application for the real-time monitoring of marine biodiversity

Spain – The Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) launches on June the 8th, 2020, EAR to the WILD, an innovative application that will monitor ocean biodiversity from any mobile platform. The App will listen to marine life from any smartphone anywhere in the world. EAR to the WILD will detect and alert to potential threats to the ocean, by transmitting the information in real-time to dedicated cloud servers where Artificial Intelligence techniques will continuously analyse the received data. The first vessel to take EAR to the WILD on board, the Swiss Sailboat Mauritius from Fondation Pacifique, will depart from French Brittany to the Arctic on June the 9th.

The industrial exploitation of the ocean has come with the uncontrolled introduction of sources of noise pollution that have invaded its entire living space and has added an invisible devastating threat to other wastes from our activities. While the whole food chain, from invertebrates to large whales, is affected by noise and there is an urgent need to assess ocean health, EAR to the WILD brings a technological solution to listen to marine life from any smartphone anywhere in the world.

The ocean has always been filled with noises from physical and natural processes, such as the sound of waves, rain, underwater earthquakes but also from biological processes. Many marine organisms use sound as a main tool to explore their environment, navigate and search for food. It has only been for a little over a century (with the advent of the industrial revolution) that anthropogenic noise, i.e. from human activities, has been massively introduced into the ocean, threatening its natural balance. Bioacoustics is a recent branch of science, which for about 40 years has been studying sounds emitted by wild animals in their role of maintaining biological functions, which are essential to the development and survival of populations. Bioacoustics is also addressing the effects of anthropogenic noise on the balance of marine ecosystems. Noise pollution is indeed affecting the entire ocean food web and the increase in human activities that is responsible for these effects is as alarming as the lack of means to study and control it.

Since biodiversity does not recognise human boundaries, the effective monitoring of biodiversity and sharing of the data requires convergence on methods and definitions. To compensate for the lack of marine bioacoustics data and to increase its accessibility to offshore industries and regulators, the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) of the UPC has created and developed for 15 years an international research program, LIDO (Listen to the Deep Ocean) which has seen the deployment of a worldwide network of underwater acoustic observatories. LIDO has two missions: on the one hand the real-time and automated sound exploration of marine biodiversity with, in particular, the acoustic detection and monitoring of species of interest, and on the other hand the characterisation of the different sources of noise pollution in order to reduce their impact.

LIDO currently includes worldwide fixed listening stations capable of monitoring ocean noise in real-time on a spatial and temporal scale never experienced before. These acoustic observatories are equipped with a software package that continuously analyses the flow of acoustic data and produces spectrograms as output (visualization of the sounds recorded in the form of 3D diagrams). These spectrograms, which are immediately displayed online, allow a 24/7 viewing of the recorded soundscapes. The public interface is available at http://www.lido.listentothedeep.com.

LIDO has definitely contributed to modify the approach of marine bioacoustics not only by making listening to the oceans accessible to all (while humans cannot hear underwater without an adapted equipment), but also by providing ocean users with a robust tool to control and mitigate against the effects of anthropogenic noise.

Monitoring the status of endangered species and biodiversity trends is critical to conservation and management and although the LIDO stations already constitute genuine sentinels that constantly monitor biodiversity and noise pollution in areas under risk and thus provide objective data to inform of any possible exceed of safety thresholds, the current effort to monitor ocean biodiversity is still insufficient to detect such trends for most species and habitats.

The LAB international effort to contribute to address ocean noise issues is now bringing another dimension to our perception of ocean sounds: EAR to the WILD will allow humans to listen to and process underwater sounds just like if we were dolphins.

EAR to the WILD is bringing LIDO to smartphones to expand its network of observatories to remote oceans by making them mobile, in particular in Polar regions, where biodiversity reference data is lacking. The use of the application will allow to increase our knowledge on conservation needs and remotely sense habitat changes. A simple click on the screen will automatically record underwater sounds that will be analysed in cloud servers (including the measurement of noise levels, the automated identification of individual species and artificial sound sources) and made accessible worldwide. Although the objective behind EAR to the WILD is primarily scientific, the compressed audio provided in the application will allow visitors to listen live to sound streams from underwater life with minimal bandwidth usage from the comfort of their living room.

EAR to the WILD is a scientific application with an attractive and user-friendly interface that aims at being used by non-bioacousticians in September 2020. The involvement of non-professionals in scientific research and environmental monitoring, termed Citizen Science (CS), has now become a mainstream approach for collecting data on earth processes, ecosystems and biodiversity. CS has gained in popularity over the last decade due to the emergence of a number of new tools and technologies. In that sense, EAR to the WILD will radically change the way marine biodiversity is monitored by providing state-of-the-art technology to individuals that will interact, collaborate and share data online.

The first vessel to take EAR to the WILD on board will be Mauritius, which will depart from Douarnenez in Brittany to the Arctic for a five-year journey on June the 9th. Designed and led by Fondation Pacifique with the aim of measuring the human impact on one of the most sensitive regions of the world in the urgent context of climate change, the Arctic expedition 2020–2024 consists of a 5-year tour of the Arctic Ocean from the west on board the 30m Swiss sailboat Mauritius, a steel schooner built in 1963 in the Netherlands. In addition to EAR to the WILD, the expedition will continuously monitor greenhouse gas (methane and carbon dioxide) concentrations, temperatures and other important data both in the polar atmosphere and in the surface ocean waters.

The Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC), is part of its Campus in Vilanova i la Geltrú. The LAB is internationally recognised as a leading research laboratory on the effects of ocean noise pollution. Its director, Prof. Michel André, a 2002 Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, recently lead a scientific expedition to Antarctica last March where EAR to the WILD was initially tested. The Antarctic is the last region that is still protected from human activities except from cruise ships, which represent the only industry that is authorised to penetrate the Antarctic waters where noise pollution is not yet regulated.

Source: Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC)

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