“Can You Hear Me Now?” – Impacts of Anthropogenic Noise on Animal Capabilities

Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis

If you live in a densely populated city, you know there is hardly a moment that goes by when you don’t hear a siren blaring or a horn honking. Studies have even pointed to the constant presence of traffic-induced noises as potentially leading to mental health issues such as depression. It’s no surprise then that human-caused noise pollution may in fact affect the capabilities of nonhuman animals nearby, and a new study released by the University of Colorado – Boulder aimed to study those consequences on birds living near oil and gas drilling sites in New Mexico. The Daily Camera‘s review of the study noted that the birds exhibited symptoms such as decreased stress hormone responses (like those experienced by a person with PTSD), decreases in successful reproductive outcomes, and negative impacts to communication that would normally signal predators near nests. “If you were trying to talk to your friends and your children and you were always at a loud party, you would get worn out”, says lead researcher Nathan Kleist.

Birds are not the only species to experience issues from anthropogenic noise. Sonar use, seismic blasts for oil drilling, and shipping vessels have all been shown to negatively impact cetaceans such as dolphins and whales. In Ecoacoustics: The Ecological Role of Soundsauthors distinguish between two types of noise that affect marine animals:

  1. High-intensity impulsive noise – sounds produced by pile driving, seismic testing, and sonar application
  2. Low-frequency continuous noise –  sounds produced by shipping vessels such as freighters, fishing boats, and personal crafts

These types of marine noise pollution can also induce stress responses like those found in the birds studied by CU. “In addition to causing auditory masking and histological damage to hearing systems, noise pollution can induce a series of biochemical responses with consequential stress responses and metabolic perturbations. Noise is able to cause physiological stress responses  in marine organisms, such as stimulating nervous activity, increasing metabolism, and reducing immunity.” Particularly vulnerable is the distinct population segment of beluga whales inhabiting the Cook Inlet of Alaska. Now only estimated at about 300 individuals, beluga whales are constantly bombarded by noise pollution and as the National Resource Defense Council asserts, they have a “25 percent probability of extinction within 100 years, and a 75 percent chance within 200 years.”

More and more are nonhuman animals coming into contact with the noise pollutions produced by our modern way of living, and more and more do we have to task ourselves with determining how we can create a flourishing livelihood for those animals who are suffering the most.