Birdsongs in space

United Academics

Any given species of bird probably has a variety of different songs. Most bird studies track individual birds in their own habitats, and then make more or less one-by-one comparisons—a bird in a forest will sound different from the same species in a city. An international team has taken these studies one step further—by making a giant leap into space.

Thomas Smith, an ecologist at UCLA, and his team from the US, UK, Cyprus, and The Netherlands, found that satellite data, combined with traditional field studies, could help them predict the variations in singing by the common little greenbul (Andropadus virens, pictured), a songbird found in many habitats across Africa. The study, published online in Evolutionary Applications, not only shows how bird songs can vary, but demonstrates how combining satellite data with field studies can trace the evolution and variation of any species. It is also the first study to ever use satellite data to track variation of earth-bound species of animals or plants.

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Leiden University 

A new study published online in Evolutionary Applications reports on a remarkable tool to use remote-sensing data to predict animal behaviour (birdsong), across vast spatial scales.

The collaborative effort was spearheaded by Prof. Tom Smith from the Center for Tropical Research and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California Los Angeles. The team exploited space expertise from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and included Dr. Hans Slabbekoorn from the IBL.

The researchers used remotely sensed data to predict the song characteristics of the little greenbul (Andropadus virens), a widely distributed African passerine, found across secondary and mature rainforest habitats and the rainforest-savanna ecotone. Dr. Hans Slabbekoorn started to record songs of this species back in 1999 on invitation by Prof. Tom Smith. The recordings served in a comparative study of acoustics, morphology, and genetics. The data of this earlier study revealed that ecology was more important than geographic distance in explaining song variation across 12 sites in Cameroon. This was regarded as an important finding and in line with a role for song in ecological speciation given that birds at the recorded sites were all of the same species and that they also showed habitat-dependent divergence in morphology despite evidence of on-going gene flow (Slabbekoorn & Smith, Evolution 2002).

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