March 26th, 2012 by

(Credit: Brian Robert Marshall)

Mankind is a noisy animal. Far beyond the sounds we can physically make ourselves, if you consider the noise produced by all the machinery and industry around the world, humans are by far the loudest creatures on Earth. And like that obnoxious college roommate that always played their music too loud, we are driving our quieter natural neighbors a bit crazy.

It makes sense that industrial noise could have a negative effect on local wildlife, but new research suggests the problem may run deeper than that. A research team led by Clinton Francis of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) has found that industrial noise can literally transform a landscape. It all comes back to how everything in nature is interconnected. Industrial noise causes changes in behavior for all animals in an area, including birds and insects, many of which play significant roles in dispersing seeds for trees and other plants. When industrial noise causes them to change their usual patterns, over time, it can actually change the distribution of plant species throughout the area.

western scrub jay

Western scrub jay (Credit: BTGW/Flickr)

Francis’ team studied wildlife in New Mexico’s Rattlesnake Canyon Habitat Management Area, which also happens to be home to a number of natural gas wells. The team’s series of experiments found that some species actually prefer the noisier areas, while others stay far away. Hummingbirds, for instance, don’t seem to mind noisier areas at all. The team saw increased hummingbird activity in the noisier sites, which means that plants pollinated by hummingbirds, such as flowers, may do better in those areas. Western scrub jays, on the other hand, do not like noise. This is bad news for the piñon pine trees in noisier areas because they rely on western scrub jays to reproduce. The birds take seeds from the cones and hide them in the ground to eat later. These seed stores don’t always get eaten, and the ones that are spared often sprout new trees.

At the end of their study, Francis’ team found that there were four times as many new tree seedlings in quiet areas than there were in noisy ones. The implications are enough to make me a little uneasy. Sure, every site is a bit different, and the plant, bird and insect species will vary, but there will always be a ripple effect for forests that border industrial sites or other noisy places. How different will these forests look 10 years from now? 50? The treeline could be pushed back little by little with each decade, just by simple noise.