Published on Wednesday in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, the study found that the behaviour of more than 100 species, separated widely on the evolutionary tree, is affected by noise.
It found that noise impacts many species of amphibians, arthropods, birds, fish, mammals, molluscs and reptiles, with their genetic distance contributing “only little to the variation in response to noise”.
“Thus, the effects of anthropogenic noise can be explained by the majority of species responding to noise rather than a few species being particularly sensitive to noise,” it concluded. It is therefore of importance to conservation as it can affect a raft of wildlife across many different ecosystems.
The upshot is that anthropogenic noise “must be considered as a serious form of environmental change and pollution as it affects both aquatic and terrestrial species. Our analyses provide the quantitative evidence necessary for legislative bodies to regulate this environmental stressor more effectively,” states the paper.
The World Health Organization identifies environmental noise – particularly from road traffic and aircraft – as being responsible for a range of health effects. These include raising the risk of heart disease, sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment in children and stress-related mental health conditions.
The new paper offers definitive evidence that noise does not just make people ill, but that the impacts are felt far more widely across terrestrial and aquatic habitats and that these could be underestimated, it suggests.
Dr Hansjoerg Kunc, from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast and lead author, said: “The study 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.”
Noise can affect species in many ways, one of the most important being disrupting communication – such as choosing a mate or warning about a nearby predator. But it can also pose a problem for predators, particularly owls and bats, which rely on their sensitive hearing to find prey. Noisy environments could therefore make it more difficult for them to find food, affecting their survival and reproduction.
At the same time, noise from ships poses a problem for some fish larvae, which find a home based on the sound of reefs. They could therefore choose less suitable habitat. Birds also avoid noisy areas during migration, affecting their distribution and therefore the wider functioning of ecosystems.
Dr Kunc concluded: “Noise must be considered as a global pollutant and we need to develop strategies to protect animals from noise for their livelihoods.”
This article originally appeared on ENDS Europe’s sister website ENDS Report.
Follow up: Biology Letters study (paywall).