An article on the research of the impact of human sounds on puffins is considered to be one of the best articles in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2020. The article is presented in a focused overview of the articles that have attracted most attention this year.
The article is based on researched carried out at the University’s research centre in Húsavík by the American scientist Adam Smith, supervised by Marianne Rasmussen who heads the centre.
“This is a great achievement and an honour. We are all very pleased with this recognition at the centre,” says Marianne Rasmussen, but the study explores how puffins and seabirds utilise sound. This means investigating what the birds hear, what sounds they produce, what sounds are part of their natural environment, and how sounds produced by human activity impact their life and behaviour.
“I have been studying natural soundscapes in the puffin’s nesting areas. The concept of soundscape,” says Adam Smith, “refers to all the different phenomena that produce sounds and create the sound pattern found in a particular area. On land the sounds come from the wind, the rain, waves, and the voices of birds, or from cars. Underwater sounds come from the wind, the surface waves, and from whales, fish and boats passing by.”
Soundscapes important in bird behaviour
Adam says that in recent years scientists have been discovering that these soundscapes play an important role in the behaviour and lives of animals. “When natural soundscapes are altered by human activity it can have a negative impact. We try to understand the natural soundscapes in puffin nesting areas, what factors are most important in them, and then we try to establish whether human sounds change these patterns and how this may impact the puffins.”
“I have been investigating natural soundscapes in the puffin’s nesting areas. The concept of soundscape,” says Adam Smith, “refers to all the different phenomena that produce sounds and create the sound pattern found in a particular area. On land the sounds come from the wind, the rain, waves, and the voices of birds, or from cars. Underwater sounds come from the wind, the surface waves, and from whales, fish and boats passing by.” image/Jón Örn Guðbjartsson.
Adam says that the study method is called passive sound scanning. It entails placing recording devices on land and underwater in the area around the puffin nesting grounds. “This equipment is left there to record throughout the summer while the puffins are there. The recordings are then gathered and analysed in a laboratory.”
Adam says that this method is very efficient because sounds from long periods can be gathered, “and furthermore it enables us to catch the sounds produced by puffins when no human is close.”
Besides researching the soundscapes in puffin nesting grounds, Adam studies various aspects of the puffin, including the birds’ hearing, the anatomy of their auditory organs, and how the birds react to manmade sounds in lab settings.
The results important in conservation efforts
Adam says that the results will be important in developing rules on nature tourism in Iceland that will be based on sound evidence. “Using this evidence, a solid plan can be developed to protect and restore puffin populations in Iceland and elsewhere. Even though puffins are my field it is very likely that the results will apply concerning the effects of sound pollution on other seabirds.”
The project is multi-national and part of a broad research collaboration between scientists at the University of Iceland, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the USA, and SDU in Denmark.