A Congress with Concerts and Koalas: Ecoacoustics 2018 in Brisbane

Richard Beason, regular contributor to our InSite/Out column, was at the 2018 Ecoacoustics Comgress in Brisbane. He reports back on a conference that included ecology, music, conservation, bioacoustics, technology and more.

As my fieldwork was finished for this year, in this blog I set off for the 2018 Ecoacoustics Congress in Brisbane. Not only was this my first international conference, it was also the first I’ve attended that was specifically devoted to my area of research. A particularly exciting prospect when you don’t usually bump into many people working with sound at more generally themed conferences. Indeed, the relatively recent emergence of this field is evidenced by the fact that the International Society of Ecoacoustics (ISE) only began hosting these conferences in 2014 and, as they’re only once every two years, this was just the third meeting to have taken place.


A Tale of Two Venues

The conference was shared between the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), which hosted the scientific presentations and poster session, while the Queensland conservatorium at Griffith University provided the setting for the artistic side of ecoacoustics including live performances, sound installations and listening rooms. The two venues are situated on opposite sides of the Brisbane river, both within view of Australia’s only artificial, urban beach (if beaches aren’t your thing, Queensland’s Botanic Gardens are situated next to QUT and there’s galleries, theatres and museums on the South Bank near Griffith).

Queensland University of Technology, within view of the beach.Although the arts and science camps were separated by a river, the Victoria Bridge that crosses between them was an apt metaphor for the way ecoacoustics has connected these two disciplines. The interdisciplinary nature of Ecoacoustics 2018 was equally apparent in the interesting, and very sociable, mix of people attending; ecologists, musicians, conservationists, bioacousticians, bird watchers and people (currently lacking collective nouns) who work with machine learning, sound installations, public engagement and big data.


Welcome & Keynotes

The conference began on Sunday with a selection of informal workshops on the technicalities of recording, streaming and analysis. followed by a chance to mingle at the reception, live performances and a surround sound concert. First thing on Monday, we were officially welcomed to the country by Uncle Raymond Walker of the Noonuccal people with traditional songs and stories about the importance of sound, the perils of singing for rain and the benefits of Bunya nuts. Certainly, the most memorable and entertaining conference opening I’ve experienced to date.

Our first keynote speaker, Dr Eddie Game, explained how acoustic monitoring was providing a robust and cost-effective tool with which to assess the impacts of conservation projects in Borneo and Papua New Guinea. We also heard about the devastation wrought by demand for palm-oil, highlighting the vital work being done by organisations such as The Nature Conservancy. After lunch, Dr Craig Radford told us about the history of hydrophones, originally developed to detect submarines in World War I, how fish use sound to communicate and locate reefs, and his work monitoring aquatic soundscapes to assess the health of New Zealand’s marine ecosystems.

A wide range of people, all interested in ecoacoustics.Tuesday began with Anne Axel, Assistant Professor at Marshall University, demonstrating how satellite imagery and acoustic monitoring can be combined to investigate the influence seasonal vegetation changes have on Madagascan soundscapes, or ‘soundscape phenology’. Having studied remote sensing myself, it was great to see these two techniques coming together. In the afternoon, Dr Michael Towsey provided an overview of the history of ecoacoustics and, with the help of the innovative and very colourful long-duration spectrograms developed by his lab, made a convincing argument that the discipline had now come of age. I must admit to having mixed feelings about this as I had quite liked the idea of working in a ‘newly emerged discipline’.

On Wednesday we returned to Griffith, and the artistic side of the river, where Dr Ros Bandt described her work with Aeolian harps, which are ‘played’ by the wind, and some of the unusual acoustic spaces where she has performed, including the impressive Yerebatan Sarayi, an ancient, cavernous water cistern built beneath Istanbul. In our final keynote talk, Dr David Monacchi discussed his Fragments of Extinctions project, which records ‘sound portraits’ of primary, equatorial forests to preserve them as sonic heritage and generate awareness of their richness and fragility through public performances in specially designed, surround sound Eco-Acoustic theatres.


Presentations, Workshops & Posters

Scientific presentations were held in parallel streams on Monday and Tuesday. Although this meant you couldn’t attend every talk you wanted to, it was necessary to represent the broad range of themes into which the talks were divided; soundscapes, ecological monitoring, machine learning, bioacoustics, acoustic indices and detection/recognition. Perhaps most importantly, it also gave the maximum number of people the chance to discuss their research with what was likely to be the largest single gathering of ecoacoustians between 2016 and 2020. By the time the conference ended, it felt as if practically everyone there had been able to participate in some way, which further encouraged the already relaxed and communal atmosphere of all being in it together.

Live performances provide an artistic break from scientific presentations.
Live performances provide an artistic break from scientific presentations.

Considering this is only the third congress, the presentations revealed a long, and occasionally surprising, list of species and species groups are being studied and surveyed acoustically. Not just birds and bats (arguably the most obvious candidates), but also whales, fish, rhinos, geckos, beetles and even swarms of Monarch butterflies! Naturally, being an Australian conference, Koalas also got a mention. Frogs and toads had a particularly strong showing; with only four native species of frogs and toads here in the UK, it’s easy to forget how useful acoustic monitoring can be for detecting anurans. The purposes for which species were being monitored proved to be equally varied; establishing presence in remote regions, monitoring populations, informing restoration projects, examining seasonal patterns, assessing effects of land-use changes and as early warning systems against invasives.

Conference poster sessions are going paperless.
Conference poster sessions are going paperless.

The different technologies associated with ecoacoustics were also well represented, particularly through the workshops, and included everything from data capture (developing acoustic platforms, practical recording issues and acoustic observatories) to data analysis (automated species recognition, acoustic indices and visualising big data). Even the poster session was suitably hi-tech and there wasn’t a cardboard tube or drawing pin in sight as posters were presented on a large video wall in the QUT foyer.

On Wednesday, we were back over the river in Griffith for the creative and interdisciplinary presentations; however, sadly, I was unable to attend any of these. This was by no means due to any lack of interest on my part but, with another set of technical workshops being held in parallel, the lure of exchanging bat detection tips and learning how to produce false-colour spectrograms was too strong to resist. In fact, there was so much going on I didn’t even get to attend all the workshops I would have liked, which, to be fair, was all of them.


Wrapping Up

Ecoacoustics 2018 in Brisbane: the conference equivalent of stroking a Koala.
Ecoacoustics 2018 in Brisbane: the conference equivalent of stroking a Koala.

Looking back at how much was going on, I’m surprised by how relaxed and stress-free it all felt at the time. This was no doubt due to the considerable effort, imagination and enthusiasm the conference committee had channelled into this event. After four days I left with a warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction, somewhat akin to the one I experienced when stroking a Koala at Tuesday evening’s conference dinner at the Lone Pine Sanctuary. Finally, it would be remiss of me not to thank Wildlife Acoustics, for generously providing prizes for best presentations and the lunch-time raffle, particularly as I was lucky enough to be amongst the winners.


Missed the conference?Here’s some more from ecoacoustics below :

Richard Beasons’s InSite/Out posts from the field (or forest).

Ecoacoustics: the Ecological Investigation and Interpretation of Environmental Sound – Jérôme Sueur and Almo Farina

Long-duration Audio-recordings of the Environment, Visualisation & Analysis – Michael Towsey, Anthony Truskinger and Paul Roe

Ecoacoustic indices as proxies for biodiversity on temperate reefs – Sydney A. Harris, Nick T. Shears and Craig A. Radford

Development and field validation of a regional, management‐scale habitat model: A koala Phascolarctos cinereus case study – Bradley Law, Gabriele Caccamo, Paul Roe, Anthony Truskinger, Traecey Brassil, Leroy Gonsalves, Anna McConville and Matthew Stanton

AudioMoth: Evaluation of a smart open acoustic device for monitoring biodiversity and the environment – Andrew P. Hill, Peter Prince, Evelyn Piña Covarrubias, C. Patrick Doncaster, Jake L. Snaddon and Alex Rogers


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