Scientists Propose the Creation of a Global Aquatic Sound Library

The first-ever international audio collection of aquatic ecosystems would aim to uncover unidentified fish species, discover regional dialects and more

An underwater image of a humpback whale
Out of 250,000 known marine species, scientists suspect all 126 marine mammals emit sound. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain

A city bustling with noise is a sign of a thriving environment. Likewise, underwater communities full of natural sounds are a sign of good health. To better understand the diversity, distribution and abundance of species in noisy underwater ecosystems, a group of 17 international scientists, are calling for a global audio collection of Earth's submerged orchestras.

The collection, dubbed The Global Library of Underwater Biological Sounds (GLUBS), will catalog everything from the humming of boats, to a blue whale's haunting clicks and whistles, to the sounds of ice and wind, reports the Guardian's Patrick Greenfield. A reference library like GLUBS may help researchers collaborate, compare and monitor marine, brackish and freshwater ecosystems and possibly identify new species. Details on the proposal were published this month in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Roughly 250,000 marine species are known, and lots of them have been heard making noise. Scientists suspect all 126 marine mammals emit sound. Whales communicate over long distances with bellowing wails, and manatees will squeak and chirp when aroused, frightened or while interacting with one another. According to a statement, at least 100 invertebrates and 1,000 of the world's known 34,000 fish species also make noise, and experts think more fish are waiting to be heard.

Archiving and understanding aquatic chatter as Earth's biodiversity declines and underwater soundscapes are altered by human impacts is important, Miles Parsons, study lead author and marine biologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, explains in a statement.

The plan highlights using hydrophones to hear and record the sounds of the underwater world. Researchers also proposed integrating other tools like GoPros used by citizen scientists, artificial intelligence learning systems and phone apps to collect and analyze data, per a statement. In the web-based sound library, users would be able to sift through known and unknown sounds, distribution maps of where species were heard, and collections of passive noises made when animals eat, swim or crawl around, a statement explains.

Various research institutions have their own sound libraries. Still, a global platform that brings together existing libraries would give accessibility to more data and allow for more collaboration, reports Stephen Luntz for IFL Science.

The open-access collection may help researchers identify biologically rich areas to protect and how species in one location differ from the same species residing in another area. For example, some species develop geographic dialects. Madagascar's skunk anemonefish will make fighting sounds different from anemonefish in Indonesia. Fin whales have different calls based on the hemisphere they reside in, according to the Guardian.

Besides being a tool for monitoring biodiversity, the recorded sounds may be used to help degraded areas come back to life. One study published in Nature Communications in 2019 showed that when researchers played recordings of a thriving coral reef ecosystem through a speaker in a coral-bleached area, fish were lured back and moved in, reports Ally Hirschlag for the Washington Post. Twice as many fish set roots near the speakers than in areas with no enhanced ambiance.

As catalogs of underwater sounds grow, researchers will more likely understand what sounds aid in the restoration efforts of a specific ecosystem, per the Washington Post.

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