The survival of more than 100 animal species is under threat because of noise pollution which can mask the acoustic signals they rely on to hunt, mate, and warn of predators.
The catastrophic effect of what is known as anthropogenic noise —sound generated by human activity — is captured by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in a study published in Biology Letters.
For instance, amphibians, birds, insects, and mammals communicate by producing acoustic signals and if noise pollution reduces the ability to communicate vital information such as warning family members of predators, or choosing a mate, it will impact on their survival.
Noise pollution can also inhibit animals in their quest to find prey; animals such as bats and owls rely on the sounds of the potential prey.
In the aquatic world, fish larvae find their home based on the sound emitted by reefs.
Increased noise pollution in the sea, mainly as a result of ships, makes it more difficult for fish larvae to find suitable reefs, meaning many will choose less suitable reefs, which could reduce their lifespan.
The researchers found that noise pollution also has a huge impact on the natural migration of animals. They say many birds will avoid noise-polluted areas during migration which, in turn, affects where they will establish their long-term homes to raise their young.
These changes in distribution of species can, in turn, affect ecosystem health, as each species forms an integral part in maintaining the functioning of a specific ecosystem.
Dr Hansjoerg Kunc, from the School of Biological Sciences at QUB and lead author, said the study, which analysed the effects of noise in more than 100 species, found clear evidence that noise pollution affects all of the seven groups of species: amphibians, arthropods, birds, fish, mammals, molluscs, and reptiles.
It is the first “quantitative evidence” for legislative bodies to regulate noise pollution more effectively, said the researchers.
Dr Kunc said their work showed that noise pollution “must be considered as a serious form of man-made environmental change and pollution”.
“Noise must be considered as a global pollutant and we need to develop strategies to protect animals from noise for their livelihoods,” he said.