Human-Caused Noise Pollution May Threaten The Survival Of Many Species Around The World

Many species, including humpback whales, communicate, navigate and find food by projecting sound. Napong Suttivilai/Shutterstock

Human-caused noise pollution may threaten the survival of more than 100 different species around the world, new research suggests.

Researchers at Queens University Belfast found that various types of noise pollution, from highway traffic to underwater sonar, change the acoustic environment and affect the behavior of amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles. Globally, anthropogenic noise pollution is the norm, not the exception, write study authors in Biology Letters.

Noise pollution is everywhere and has been shown to impact humans and animals alike. The European Environment Agency deems noise pollution a “major environmental health concern” that is threatening the “well-being of human populations” and “deteriorating [the] health and distribution of wildlife on land and in the sea.”

Previous studies suggest that noise can alter animal behavior and is drowning out the natural sounds of marine ecosystems. Porpoises have been shown to stop eating and flee from ship sounds, and terrestrial noise pollution makes some birds so stressed they possibly experience PTSD-like symptoms. In the high-altitude environments of China, unnatural noise can inhibit giant pandas from finding a suitable mate during a female’s random ovulation.

(Check out this map if you want to listen to the world devoid of human noise.)

Bats navigate and find food by echolocation, which can be inhibited by anthropogenic noise. Jeffrey Paul Wade/Shutterstock

A multi-level, phylogenetically controlled analysis of nearly 500 types of effects on more than 100 species from more than 100 individual studies found "clear evidence that noise pollution affects all of the seven groups of species and that the different groups did not differ in their response to noise,” said lead author Hansjoerg Kunc in a statement. As such, anthropogenic noise can affect both aquatic and terrestrial species and “must be considered a serious form of environmental change and pollution."

The study authors note that their results provide quantitative evidence that can serve as a guiding framework for legislative bodies to develop regulations to protect species from increasing human noise.

“This large-scale quantitative study provides significant evidence that noise pollution must be considered as a serious form of man-made environmental change and pollution, illustrating how it affects so many aquatic and terrestrial species,” said Kunc. “Noise must be considered as a global pollutant and we need to develop strategies to protect animals from noise for their livelihoods.”

The authors point out that while the analysis quantifies whether there is an effect of noise on animals, it does not “imply that all changes caused by anthropogenic noise have to be biologically negative per se.” The impact may depend on the context, and such complexities “cannot be unraveled in such a large-scale analysis.”

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