WildTrax: SSI Seed Grant Profile

We spoke with the recipients of the 2021 Sound Studies Institute seed grants to find out more about the ins and outs of their projects, the impacts of their research, and what the Sound Studies Institute means to them. Our discussions have been edited for clarity and length.

Dr. Erin Bayne is Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, Director of the Bioacoustic Unit, and a Sound Studies Institute affiliated researcher. Along with Tara Narwani, the director of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute Information Centre, and Alex MacPhail, the coordinator of the WildTrax project, Dr. Bayne received a Sound Studies Institute seed grant to help fund the Data Discover branch of WildTrax, a web-enabled system for environmental sensor data management and centralization. The Sound Studies Institute seed grant helps fund the development of the Data Discover component of WildTrax, moving the data beyond applications in scientific research and into a public outreach program to provide users the ability to experience areas of the Canadian natural environment that few people are able to visit in person.

With the WildTrax project, what are your own scientific goals in conducting this kind of audio-based research?

In general as a researcher, I am very interested in the use of soundscapes to understand how biodiversity reacts to natural change, human caused change, and using that data to make better decisions about environmental policy.

With WildTrax itself, our intent is to simplify that process. This helps enable my own research, but we also recognize that most of the environmental problems are far bigger than any one study will ever be able to address on its own. So our long-term goal is to provide a platform where researchers can come together and share this data that they’re collecting- basically bring the field of biology into the 21st century, using the concepts of big data.

How important are collaborations and especially cross-discipline collaboration to achieving your scientific goals? 

There’s so much data. That raw digital record can do many more things beyond just the project it was initially collected for. We can gain the knowledge of everybody’s work and use that data for all kinds of projects that we wouldn’t have thought of individually. This is invaluable for people doing the same kind of work I do – if someone has a project and they need certain data to fill gaps in their study it makes it much easier if that data is already accessible. This makes it much easier to accomplish more projects and more types of projects.

And then there’s an opportunity for discovery that can happen – honestly, I only dabble in the technical aspects of sound, but within that area, you can go everywhere from how to better clean up signal to noise ratios, how to get a computer to automatically identify sounds, even to artistic uses of the sounds. These are some of the collaborations I’ve been able to develop, especially through the Sound Studies Institute, which helps bridge some of the interdisciplinary language barriers that can exist between different fields. Sound is cool, sound is sound, and the more you learn about sounds from others who think about sound in a different way, the more ways these principles can be applied.

There’s lots of big data things out in the world, but there’s not a lot of big data collaborations, and one of the things this project is all about is bringing people together. 

How does the Sound Studies Institute seed grant more specifically help you develop this project?

The WildTrax tool itself, the system that allows us to do all these things with processing and hosting the data, is being funded by grants from industry and from government, which is really cool. But to be frank, none of them were that interested in using the data for the public communication component of it. 

So we applied for the seed grant specifically to help fund this project to share this data not only between researchers, but also with the public. The system has terabytes and terabytes of data in it, hundreds of thousands of records – it’s data for scientists. We want a way that we can share it with the public in a way that they would be able to appreciate what it is and what it’s capable of. The intent is to make a virtual tool: a virtual map, you zoom around, click on an area, it’ll take you into that place, and you can explore that space. We’ll pick the best of the recordings and images, and then also build a storyline about it, so you can understand what it is that you’re hearing and what you’re seeing.

It’s easy for a lot of these wilderness zones to feel very distant – they’re not part of your world, so you don’t don’t really know what’s happening to them. We want to provide people the opportunity to hear what the boreal forest sounds like at -30 degrees in the middle of the Yukon in the winter – that’s not a place most people are ever going to get to visit. There are some spectacular images and sounds that we really want to make available to the public so that people can appreciate these places more. When you appreciate something and know something about it, you tend to want to protect it and save it. 

Are there specific conservation issues you want to bring to peoples’ attention in this way?

I think there are many, especially when you show pictures and sound together, because often images alone do not tell you the whole story – it’s only if you can hear the soundscape that you realize an area can be quite different than how it looks.

If you have an image right up against an oil sands mine, for example, it’s easy to visualize the environmental impact. Then, if I showed you an image of that same area 500 meters away, it looks beautiful, like you’re standing in a forest. It’s only when you combine that image with a soundscape recording that you realize it’s not really just a forest, because you can hear all the mining activity. 

We have a variety of projects that relate to those kinds of questions. I’m one of the directors of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, and we have a grid of Automatic Recording Units (ARUs) that monitor environmental sounds. Every 20 kilometers across the province there’s a cluster of ARUs. Pretty much anywhere south of Lac LaBiche, that ARU has about an 80% chance of hearing some kind of human activity, whereas up into the boreal forest it drops down to 20 or 30 percent. Only about 20% of the landscape is free from human noise in many areas of Alberta, so that tells you something about our development and land use trajectory. 

We’ve been talking about largely inaccessible areas – Yukon in the winter where most people can’t and won’t visit. But how does your work deal with what happens in more accessible areas? You see that people will go on Instagram, a place will get popular and can become overrun and negatively impacted – or even locally, with the issues with people camping in the Bighorn and exceeding the capacity of the infrastructure of the area last year. In terms of using WildTrax to publicize the sound and image as a kind of virtual experience of a place – is there a way that virtual experience possibly better for the area than visiting in person?

I love going to these places – it’s the main reason I became a biologist, so I could go outside and go to really cool places, right? And I don’t ever want to take away the ability for someone else to do that. With the virtual thing, it can certainly help give people the ability to appreciate and learn about an area. But it’s never going to be the same as being there in person. I wouldn’t ever want to dismiss people taking that opportunity to go to that amazing place and experience what it’s like – but you have to treat it with the respect it deserves. 

If you pull into a wilderness area with a giant truck and massive trailer and two quads and a motorbike – that’s very different than camping in a tent and walking everywhere. When I was out in the Bighorn, there were chainsaws running everywhere, guys cutting down firewood willy nilly – when you’re one person by yourself that’s not have much of an impact, but when there’s thousands of people doing that, it’s a big deal. It’s a loving it to death kind of thing.

Even all those people that were out to the Bighorn last summer – there would be no problem if those people had been a little more responsible and cared a little more about how they behaved. It’s about personal responsibility, I think. 

We’ve talked about the kind of intrinsic value of visiting these kinds of natural spaces, and I’m wondering if there’s any really standout moments of natural beauty that you’d like to share – either that you’ve experienced in the field, or listening to the WildTrax recordings.

I’ve spent many, many years out in the bush, and there are some sounds that are so rare, I’ve only heard them once or twice in my lifetime. There’s one recording, it’s the sound of something very large, a moose, peeing – it’s not a typically “beautiful moment”, more of a funny moment, but it’s really not something you usually get to experience in person. Cougars calling is another one that is not something people get to hear very often. Or, you can go out looking for owls and it can take hundreds of kilometers to find them. In the recordings, I can find these sorts of moments more regularly, which is really fun.

That’s another thing I like about using the ARUs. The way people have done a lot of the research before, because these animals and their sounds are rare, we had to use other techniques that were a little more invasive to the animal’s biology. The ARUs allow us to get rid of that. They’re completely passive, they don’t really have any influence on the environment or the organism themselves, they just perceive what’s there and help us understand it. You’re going to catch those sounds just because the ARU is out there for so long. That’s a really neat component of it. If you listen long enough, you get something great.

For more information, visit www.wildtrax.ca