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

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The technology was initially tested in an expedition to Antarctica led by the researcher Michel André.

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The interface of the EAR to the WILD app.

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The Antarctic is the last region to be protected from human activity, except that of cruise ships.

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This technology monitors marine biodiversity in real time.

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Monitoring ocean noise pollution is critical for preserving biodiversity.

On 8 June 2020, the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) launched EAR to the WILD, an innovative application that monitors ocean biodiversity from any mobile platform. The app listens to marine life from any smartphone, anywhere in the world. EAR to the WILD detects and warns of potential threats to the ocean by transmitting information in real time to dedicated cloud servers, where artificial intelligence techniques are used to continuously analyse the data received. The first vessel to take EAR to the WILD on board, the Swiss sailboat Mauritius from Fondation Pacifique, left Brittany, in France, for the Arctic on 9 June.

Oct 01, 2020

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

The ocean has always been filled with noise from physical and natural processes, such as waves, rain and underwater earthquakes, but also from biological processes. Many marine organisms use sound as a 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. noise from human activities, has been massively introduced into the ocean, threatening its natural balance. Bioacoustics is a recent branch of science that has, for about 40 years, been studying sounds emitted by wild animals in their role of maintaining biological functions that 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.

Listen to the Deep Ocean Environment
Since biodiversity does not recognise human boundaries, the effective monitoring of biodiversity and sharing of data requires convergence on methods and definitions. To compensate for the lack of marine bioacoustic data and to increase its accessibility to offshore industries and regulators, the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) created and developed an international research programme, LIDO (Listen to the Deep Ocean Environment), which has, over a period of 15 years, deployed 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 a particular emphasis on the acoustic detection and monitoring of species of interest, and on the other hand, the characterisation of different sources of noise pollution in order to reduce their impact.

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

LIDO has definitely contributed to modifying the approach of marine bioacoustics, not just by making listening to the oceans accessible to all (humans cannot hear under water without adapted equipment), but also by providing ocean users with a robust tool to control and mitigate 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 at risk and thus provide objective data showing when safety thresholds may be exceeded, the current effort to monitor ocean biodiversity is still insufficient to detect such trends for most species and habitats.  

The LAB’s international effort to contribute to addressing ocean noise 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 as 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, particularly in polar regions where biodiversity reference data is lacking. Use of the application will allow us to increase our knowledge of 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 and 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 to sound streams from underwater life live, with minimal bandwidth usage and from the comfort of their living room.

EAR to the WILD is a scientific application with an attractive and user-friendly interface that aims to be available for use 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 who 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 9 June. Designed and led by Fondation Pacifique with the aim of measuring human impact on one of the world’s most sensitive regions, in the urgent context of climate change, the 2020–2024 Arctic expedition consists of a five-year tour of the Arctic Ocean from the west, on board the 30-metre 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 LAB is part of the UPC’s campus in Vilanova i la Geltrú. The LAB is internationally recognised for its work 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, led a scientific expedition to Antarctica last March during which EAR to the WILD was initially tested. The Antarctic is the last region to be protected from human activity, except that of cruise ships, which is the only industry that is authorised to penetrate Antarctic waters in which noise pollution has not yet been regulated.