If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? And if a species falls into extinction, how will we remember its noises? The first question may not keep Bryan Pijanowski up at night, but the second has dominated his research since 2008. For a decade Pijanowski has been traveling to the rainforests of Costa Rica and other remote natural landscapes to catalog sounds of species threatened by extinction. His objective is to prevent these sounds and contributions to nature’s soundscape from becoming, what Pijanowski calls, “acoustic fossils.”
This work does more than preserve the auditory landscapes of threatened natural environments; the recordings can also help ecologists gauge their overall well-being. As the soundscapes change they tell scientists like Pijanowski that there has been a shift in the health of a species or the ecosystem at large. Pijanowski has also developed a computer algorithm that identifies when major acoustic changes occur. There are over 1.2 million recordings in his collection, and he’s still gathering samples.
Pijanowski’s work has taken him around the world, from Costa Rica to Alaska and Borneo. While he says it is too soon to draw concrete conclusions about the implications of his recordings, he is worried they indicate processes of mass extinction taking place across the planet. Pijanowski’s work is featured in a six-part series by CNN, countless scientific journals and an array of popular media outlets like Wired, NPR and The New York Times.