An introduction to acoustic ecology

Photo credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in Physics Today is a wonderful introduction to acoustic ecology, “a field that examines how animals, including humans, use information obtained from the environment in different aspects of their lives.”

Animals, including humans, evolved in a naturally quiet environment, and noise is harmful to them. The author of the article, Megan McKenna, an acoustic biologist at the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division of the National Park Service in Colorado, writes “[a] common definition of noise is unwanted sounds that interfere with a signal of interest.”

That’s a good definition, but noise is actually harmful to animals, with that harm best studied in people. Like secondhand smoke, noise is both a nuisance and a health hazard, and there are nine evidence-based noise levels that affect human health and function.

I prefer the new definition of noise presented at the American Public Health Association meeting in November 2019 and at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in December 2019: noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound.

But whichever definition you use, we can all agree that preserving the natural acoustic environment is critical for animals and humans.

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