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Cal Poly Researcher Awarded NSF Grant to Investigate Effects of Sounds on Bird Species

Birds and bats might do what they do because of what they hear. Cal Poly biology professor Clinton Francis received $480,000 from the National Science Foundation to find out.

“One of the main goals of ecology is to understand where species occur and why,” Francis said. “We’ve typically focused on explaining these patterns using features that we can see, such as changes in plant communities. However, many animals interact with their environment primarily through chemical, tactile or acoustic signals and cues.”

Francis’ study will focus on acoustic input, specifically river and ocean sounds. He and his student research team will investigate how these sounds influence where birds and bats settle, how they interact, and how they structure communities.

The study will take place at more than 20 sites on California’s Central Coast. The conditions of each site will be reproduced at sites in Idaho and Oregon, which will be monitored by faculty and students at Boise State University. Some sites will have natural sounds from nearby oceans and rivers, and some, located farther from water, will have recorded — or phantom — sounds played through speakers. By comparing the bird and bat populations before and after the recordings are introduced, scientists can learn how sounds influence different species’ behavior.

“This type of research could reveal the importance of hearing and other senses when describing where species occur and the resulting patterns of biodiversity,” Francis said. This is the largest project to date that uses phantom sounds.

The study will involve Cal Poly students in hands-on research. Students will set up phantom ocean equipment, count birds and bats, and search for bird nests.

“Not many classes allow you to collect a large set of real-world data, analyze it, and be responsible for picking out interesting and meaningful relationships the way research does,” said biological sciences major Kelley Boland, who has worked with Francis on other projects. “Plus, when you’re out in the field, seeing bluebird eggs laid and then hatch into tiny babies is pretty special.”

Francis’s previous research focused on the effects of human-made noise on birds. He hopes that combining the results of the two studies will provide a more complete picture of how sound affects animal behavior.

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