During the 2023 winter break, several CALS undergraduate students spent two weeks on the Big Island of Hawaii for the natural resources and the environment field methods course, Conservation Bioacoustics: Hawaii Edition (NTRES 3151). While there, they gained firsthand experience with conservation bioacoustics projects across marine and terrestrial ecosystems, learning acoustic data collection techniques through participation in ongoing monitoring projects with researchers from the Hawaii Marine Mammal Consortium and the University of Hawaii. Three of the students, Anthony Lopardo ’23, Braeden Thomson ’24 and Maia Edwards ’23, share their experiences below.
Anthony Lopardo ’23, applied economics & management
As a marine biology minor, I feel extremely fortunate to have participated in the field course on the Big Island of Hawaii through the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics.
We spent the first week exploring different parts of the island, collecting preliminary data and refining our project interests, with the goal to narrow our focus to a single habitat from where we’d collect the data relevant to our hypothesis.
At Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii, we observed a distinct apapane motif, which we named the “fling,” that appeared to occur only within a portion of this 30,000-acre reserve, near the border between restored and primary forest. Based on this observation, we hypothesized that apapane can exhibit extreme microgeographic variation in their memes (<1 km), potentially to mediate interactions between short-term, opportunistic visitors feeding on ohia blooms and longer-term residents breeding within a habitat.
My group sought to understand dialect shifts in the song of the apapane, a small, crimson species of the Hawaiian honeycreeper bird, over small geographic transects throughout Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge. Endemic to Hawaii, the apapane is known for its complex song. Our analysis incorporated several techniques, including point count surveys and acoustic recordings captured using the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics’ Swift autonomous recording units and shotgun recording units. With all of the data collected, we are now applying it to a machine learning model to detect patterns in the apapane song to help inform apapane conservation efforts possibly needed following impacts of invasive species, loss of native forest and avian malaria in endemic birds.
In addition to our main project, our group also embarked on a side quest to listen to crickets in the mid-elevation forests at the Hakalau refuge. We were able to record several individual crickets of the same species, however, to our knowledge, no crickets were known to exist at the elevation where these recordings were made! So, after an extensive literature review, we believe these recordings could be of a previously undescribed species in the genus Trigonidium.
The experience has by far been my favorite at Cornell and an exciting shift from my usual study of applied economics and management. My peers were friendly and the professors were phenomenal throughout the entire course.
As a Dyson student exploring the world of marine biology, I highly recommend that students pursue subjects that they are passionate about, since you never know what amazing opportunities are in store for you!
Braeden Thomson ’24, earth & atmospheric sciences
After spending the fall 2022 semester in the classroom learning about the breadth of approaches and methods used to study animal vocalizations and natural soundscapes, the Conservation Bioacoustics field course provided our class with the opportunity to apply our newfound knowledge and skills in a unique environment: the island of Hawaii.
Because Hawaii is an area in which many species are imminently threatened by extinction, the field course was structured to explore the ecosystems that such threatened species inhabit. We collected acoustic data on a diversity of taxa, ranging from humpback whales to coral reef fish to critically-endangered Hawaiian forest birds.
I walked away from the Conservation Bioacoustics field course with new understandings about the nexus of local culture, conservation strategies and acoustic research.
Among my most memorable experiences in this course was the opportunity to observe and record several wild palila, a Hawaiian honeycreeper with a geographic range restricted to the western slope of Mauna Loa. With a declining wild population estimated between 500 and 1,000 individuals, conservation of this species is a priority. It felt very special to see and record palila, and our class is working to begin a long-term acoustic monitoring project to better understand the abundance and distribution of this bird.
Maia Edwards, Environment & Sustainability ’23
I worked with Anthony and Braeden to gather acoustic data on the local apapane honeycreeper bird.
Watching and listening to these birds in their natural habitat was surreal, and it was fascinating to observe their localized use of a unique song motif in a 750-meter transect of the forest. As far as we know, this motif hasn’t been found anywhere else on the island and represents a unique dialect of this area.
One day, we had the opportunity to work with the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative. We harvested hundreds of little red seeds from wiliwili trees, some of which were over 200 years old. We worked together to knock the seed pods from the tree, which look kind of like soybeans, and shucked them into buckets. Later that day, we each planted a young sapling at the forest reserve.
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