Noisy environments can have detrimental effect on plants, study finds, Persistent noise from natural gas wells in New Mexico disrupted birds that feed on and distribute pinyon seeds
As humans proliferate, we have penetrated deeper into wildlife habitats, creating a pervasive rise in environmental sound with our gadgets, traffic and industry. A growing body of research has shown how noise pollution adversely affects animal behaviour – but a study suggests the detrimental effects have trickled down to plants as well.
To investigate the long-term ecological effects of persistent noise, researchers chose the Rattlesnake Canyon habitat management area in New Mexico. Dominated by woodland plants, the area in the US south-west contains a high density of natural gas wells, some of which are coupled with compressors that run continuously and generate chronic noise at up to 100 decibels. That is as loud “as being next to the speakers at a Black Sabbath concert or standing right next to the train tracks as the train goes by”, said Dr Jenny Phillips, who was lead author of the study while at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. Other wells are devoid of compressors.
The vegetation and human activity across both types of wells are similar – so in 2007 one set of researchers compared vegetation in both contexts, finding that noise pollution disrupted the natural community in two ways: seedling dissemination and germination (known as recruitment) of the woodland species – pinyon pine – was reduced as the community of animals that feed upon and disperse the plant’s seeds were adversely affected. Hummingbirds, meanwhile, thrived amid the noise, which led to increased flower pollination.
Twelve years on, researchers sought to assess the long-term ecological impact of this noisy ecosystem. They resurveyed the plots following initial data collection to determine whether the previously reported patterns for pinyon seedlings persisted, but also included analyses of another tree species, the Utah juniper, as well as other flora. However, out of those 115 plots initially surveyed, some had changed from noisy to quiet because compressors had been removed, and vice versa.
In terms of the pinyon – the researchers found seedlings were found less in noisy areas (in line with the 2007 findings) and the saplings (plants between two and 12 years old) had also grown more slowly in the persistently loud environment. The same pattern was observed in the juniper plants.
Compressor stations on natural gas wells run continuously and generate chronic noise at up to 100 decibels. Photograph: Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images
Compare to Encana/Ovintiv compressors at Rosebud, Alberta. These were already constructed and operating (loudly invasive) when manager Mark Taylor (later promoted to VP at AER) told the Rosebud community (angrily protesting the company’s unmitigated compressor noise) that Encana never constructs more than two compressors in a row:
Another noisy polluting Encana/Ovintiv compressor station at Rosebud:
However, when looking at plots that were previously noisy but turned quiet, they saw more recruitment for juniper than for pinyon, according to the study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
This disparate rate of recovery could be attributed to the different seed dispersers for each plant, said Phillips.
The California scrub jay eats the seeds of the pinyon, but they also bury them to save for later. Then they forget about the seeds and that is what keeps the forest regenerating.
“What we think is potentially happening … is that jays are smart birds, they have episodic memory and they can remember negative experiences. So if they did explore an area a couple of years ago and if it’s noisy, then they would remember that and not go back to that area,” she said.
Juniper seedlings were more often dispersed by mammals and other birds for which the noise was not quite as disruptive, she added.
“We don’t really have the ability to say how severe the impacts [of noise pollution] are, especially if we’re looking at the ecosystem level,” said Sarah Termondt, who was a study co-author while at Texas A&M University.
“If you’re changing the ability for a seed to grow in some place because a bird is no longer dropping said seed there, that could change the habitat for a whole plethora of species.”
Human noise affects animal behaviour, studies show, Traffic noise affected zebra finches’ foraging habits and field crickets’ mating by Natalie Grover, Feb 3, 2021, The Guardian
Working from home during Covid-19 has brought noise pollution close to home, whether it’s your partner making calls within earshot or grinding coffee during your Zoom interview. Now research suggests the animal kingdom is also disturbed by the noise of humans and our gadgets.
As humans proliferate, we have penetrated deeper into wildlife habitats, creating a pervasive rise in environmental sound that not only directly affects the ability of animals to hear but indeed communicate. Emerging research suggests noise pollution, caused, for instance, by traffic, interferes with animal behaviour, including cognition and mating.
In an attempt to capture the impact of traffic sounds on cognitive performance, researchers gave adult zebra finches – a species of diminutive songbirds native to Australia – a series of foraging tasks.
The birds were either in a relatively quiet laboratory environment or treated to traffic noises designed to simulate a series of cars driving past 20 to 30 metres away.
Compare to the noise of hundreds of frac trucks, running 24/7 in Fox Creek, Alberta
Photos by Will Koop
To test inhibitory control, a skill useful for maintaining attention required to solve a problem, the songbirds were given access to a clear cylinder laid horizontally with food inside. The researchers assessed whether the birds would succumb to their intuitive response to reach in or take the more efficient route of going around the side that was left open.
The next task was lid-flipping to access food. This was designed to measure motor skills and object manipulation, which are critical for foraging. After that, the birds moved on to associative colour learning – where their ability to discriminate between different coloured lids to determine which contained the food reward – was tested. The researchers also tested spatial memory, which is crucial for remembering the locations of food sources, territorial boundaries and potential mates.
Finally, they evaluated the birds’ skill in learning from each other. A few “demonstrator” birds learned how to pull out twine knots to access food hidden within wooden blocks, and others were judged on their ability to emulate the task.
All tasks apart from colour association learning were negatively affected by traffic noise, the researchers wrote in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“We weren’t really sure that we would see such a strong effect,” said study author Christopher Templeton, an assistant professor at Pacific University, Oregon, US.
“These are birds that … live in big colonies, they’re all talking all the time making quite a big ruckus. So, to see that just the simple act of hearing cars drive by is enough to really keep them from being able to perform on these tests is pretty surprising in some ways.”
A separate study, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, looked at how female Mediterranean field crickets, Gryllus bimaculatus ̧ make mating choices under different acoustic conditions.
Males attract females by performing a courtship song by rubbing their wings together.
“In this this species, specifically, we know that the male courting song is linked to immune-competence, so they [the females] know if they have a particular high quality song they are better at surviving diseases,” explained lead author Dr Adam Bent of Cambridge University, who carried out the study as part of his PhD at Anglia Ruskin University.
To test the impact of different noise conditions, the researchers paired female crickets with male crickets whose wings had been clipped to mute their singing prowess. Then, the crickets were left to interact in ambient noise conditions or artificial noise conditions or traffic noise conditions.
Then, an artificial courtship song was played when the males attempted to court the females.
Females are typically on the hunt for multiple quality males, so the quicker they can mate, the better it is, so they can move on and find another mate. The more mates they have, the greater the offspring, and higher the likelihood that offspring survive.
In the context of ambient noise, the females mounted the males much sooner and more frequently when paired with a high-quality courtship song, the researchers found.
But the high-quality song offered no benefit in the white noise and traffic noise conditions. “The data … shows that females are unable to detect subtle differences in the song, and that means they are unable to show any difference between males that perform a high-quality song and males that perform a low-quality song,” said Bent.
“On an individual level this will have knock-on effects, potentially, to their offspring, and their offspring’s viability. But on a population level, mate choices are a really powerful mechanism of sexual selection and sexual selection drives evolution,” he suggested.
“So, by having mate choices disrupted in this way, it could vastly change the course of evolution of the species.”
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