January 22, 2021
The world is full of sounds that carry essential information— for people and wildlife. Understanding how sounds influence behaviors and interactions with the environment is paramount to the field of acoustic ecology. Studying acoustic ecology can stem from different perspectives with important links between them. The study of acoustic environments reveals cues that are available and the condition of the sensory environment. The study of sensory systems document how cues are obtained by anatomical structures, processed by neurological pathways, and ultimately perceived by the listener. Understanding why and how sounds are advantageous to an animal are discovered through the study of the functions of sound. Because animals rely on sound to make decisions for survival— including habitat selection, species recognition, foraging, and risk assessment— understanding the consequences of a noisy world is a rapidly increasing field of research. Integrating sensory ecology into resource management is challenging given the diversity of species’ responses and complexity of measuring sensory environments. To advance the application of acoustic ecology into conservation strategies, understanding the underlying mechanisms for a response provides a framework for evaluating mitigation options. Further, initiatives already underway that incorporate acoustic ecology into resource management provide key insight on the benefits and challenges.
Because so many animals make and use sound for different behaviors, acoustic monitoring is a powerful technology to study fundamental questions in biology, ecology, and conservation. There is a growing need for soundscape measurements to aid in biodiversity assessments and, given the diversity of sounds in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, the concept is promising. The literature is rich with examples at local and regional scales. Applying these methods at scales relevant to understanding the impacts of global change on biodiversity loss will require advances in methodology. Also, thinking of these methods from a sensory perspective can offer a practical approach. Soundscapes provide a unique window into an ecosystem with a view of the biotic, abiotic, and anthropogenic features. Developing methods to characterize these features more holistically will advance acoustic monitoring as a tool for comprehensive assessment of ecosystem dynamics.
Dr. Megan McKenna is an acoustic ecologist interested in how sound shapes the world around us. Dr. McKenna has applied acoustic methods to a variety of ecological questions— from blue whales to giant sequoia forests. Her research interests include understanding the role of sensory environments (sound and light) on ecological interactions, finding opportunities to protect and enhance sensory environments in coupled human-natural systems, and leveraging acoustic methods to study biodiversity at scale. Dr. McKenna has collaborated with multiple government agencies, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions to understand acoustic environments all over North America. She has helped develop international standards and served on several national and international working groups and committees to understand and manage acoustic impacts on wildlife.
Dr. McKenna is currently a researcher at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University as well as a researcher and educator with the California Ocean Alliance. She previously worked as an ecologist with the National Park Service, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate, assisting national parks with understanding and protecting acoustic and nocturnal environments. Dr. McKenna received her PhD in Biological Oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego in 2011 and her MS in Evolutionary Biology from San Diego State University. Prior to joining the park service, she was a National Academy of Sciences postdoctoral fellow at the Marine Mammal Commission in Washington, DC and a postdoctoral researcher with Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, WA.