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  1. The way in which terrestrial organisms use the acoustic realm is fundamentally important and shapes behavior, populations, and communities, but how background acoustics, or noise, influence the patterns and processes in ecology is still relatively understudied. In this review, we summarize how background acoustics have traditionally been studied from the signaling perspective, discuss what is known from a receiver's perspective, and explore what is known about population- and community-level responses to noise. We suggest that there are major gaps linking animal physiology and behavior to fitness; that there is a limited understanding of variation in hearing within and across species, especially in the context of real-world acoustic conditions; and that many puzzling responses to noise could be clarified with a community-level lens that considers indirect effects. Failing to consider variation in acoustic conditions, and the many ways organisms use and interact via this environmental dimension, risks a limited understanding of natural systems.

    Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, Volume 54 is November 2023. Please see for revised estimates.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 2, 2024
  2. Noise pollution can affect species' behaviours and distributions and may hold significant consequences for natural communities. While several studies have researched short-term effects of noise, no long-term research has examined whether observed patterns persist or if community recovery can occur. We used a long-term study system in New Mexico to examine the effects of continuous natural gas well noise exposure on seedling recruitment of foundational tree species ( Pinus edulis , Juniperus osteosperma ) and vegetation diversity. First, we examined seedling recruitment and vegetation diversity at plots where current noise levels have persisted for greater than 15 years. We then examined recruitment and diversity on plots where noise sources were recently removed or added. We found support for long-term negative effects of noise on tree seedling recruitment, evenness of woody plants and increasingly dissimilar vegetation communities with differences in noise levels. Furthermore, seedling recruitment and plant community composition did not recover following noise removal, possibly due in part to a lag in recovery among animals that disperse and pollinate plants. Our results add to the limited evidence that noise has cascading ecological effects. Moreover, these effects may be long lasting and noise removal may not lead to immediate recovery. 
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  3. Human activity around the globe is a growing source of selection pressure on animal behavior and communication systems. Some animals can modify their vocalizations to avoid masking from anthropogenic noise. However, such modifications can also affect the salience of these vocalizations in functional contexts such as competition and mate choice. Such is the case in the well-studied Nuttall's white-crowned sparrow ( Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli ), which lives year-round in both urban San Francisco and nearby rural Point Reyes. A performance feature of this species' song is salient in territorial defense, such that higher performance songs elicit stronger responses in simulated territorial intrusions; but songs with lower performance values transmit better in anthropogenic noise. A key question then is whether vocal performance signals male quality and ability to obtain high quality territories in urban populations. We predicted white-crowned sparrows with higher vocal performance will be in better condition and will tend to hold territories with lower noise levels and more species-preferred landscape features. Because white-crowned sparrows are adapted to coastal scrub habitats, we expect high quality territories to contain lower and less dense canopies, less drought, more greenness, and more flat open ground for foraging. To test our predictions, we recorded songs and measured vocal performance and body condition (scaled mass index and fat score) for a set of urban and rural birds ( N = 93), as well as ambient noise levels on their territories. Remote sensing metrics measured landscape features of territories, such as drought stress (NDWI), greenness (NDVI), mean canopy height, maximum height, leaf area density (understory and canopy), slope, and percent bare ground for a 50 m radius on each male territory. We did not find a correlation between body condition and performance but did find a relationship between noise levels and performance. Further, high performers held territories with lower canopies and less dense vegetation, which are species-preferred landscape features. These findings link together fundamental aspects of sexual selection in that habitat quality and the quality of sexually selected signals appear to be associated: males that have the highest performing songs are defending territories of the highest quality. 
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  5. Abstract Urbanization is one of the most extreme forms of land transformation and results in changes to ecosystems and species compositions. As a result, there are strong directional selection pressures compared to nearby rural areas. Despite a surge in research on the different selection pressures on acoustic communication in urban and rural areas, there has been comparatively little investigation into traits involved with visual communication. We measured the plumage of museum specimens of white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) from urban and adjacent rural habitats in San Francisco, CA, to assess the effects of divergent habitats on plumage. We found significant differences in dorsal plumage, but not crown plumage, between urban and rural populations that have been diverging over the past 100 years. Urban birds have increasingly darker and duller dorsal plumage, whereas rural birds in adjacent areas have plumage with richer hues and more color complexity. Our findings suggest a newly observed adaptation to urban environments by native species and suggest that many traits, in addition to acoustic signals, may be changing in response to urban selection pressures. Additional collections in urban areas are needed to explore likely divergences in plumage coloration between urban and rural environments. 
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  6. null (Ed.)
    Abstract Many animals learn to produce acoustic signals that are used to attract mates and defend territories. The structure of these signals can be influenced by external features of the environment, including the anthropogenic soundscape. In many sedentary species, habitat features and soundscape appears to influence the cultural evolution of songs, often with tradeoffs for better transmission over sexually selected song structure. However, none have investigated whether noise on the wintering grounds affects song structure, which for long-distance migrants may result in an acoustic ‘mismatch’ when returning to a breeding ground. This study investigates urban noise effects on song structure in a long-distance migrant, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii, on the wintering grounds in the Fresno Clovis Metropolitan Area and in outlying non-urban areas. Songs and background noise levels were recorded concurrently, and song measurements of frequency and duration were examined differences across noise levels and habitats . We found that the buzz and trill decrease in bandwidth in the presence of noise. The length of the whistle and buzz portion of the song also tends to decreases with noise in urban habitats. This trend toward short, pure tones in noisy areas may transmit better in noisy urban winter habitats, but may not be adaptive on quieter breeding grounds. We suggest that future studies should consider whether winter auditory feedback and song learning environments have consequences for song crystallization and breeding success for long-distance migrants. 
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  8. Candolin, Ulrika (Ed.)
    Abstract Learned traits, such as foraging strategies and communication signals, can change over time via cultural evolution. Using historical recordings, we investigate the cultural evolution of birdsong over nearly a 50-year period. Specifically, we examine the parts of white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli) songs used for mate attraction and territorial defense. We compared historical (early 1970s) recordings with contemporary (mid-2010s) recordings from populations within and near San Francisco, CA and assessed the vocal performance of these songs. Because birds exposed to anthropogenic noise tend to sing at higher minimum frequencies with narrower frequency bandwidths, potentially reducing one measure of song performance, we hypothesized that other song features, such as syllable complexity, might be exaggerated, as an alternative means to display performance capabilities. We found that vocal performance increased between historical and contemporary songs, with a larger effect size for urban songs, and that syllable complexity, measured as the number of frequency modulations per syllable, was historically low for urban males but increased significantly in urban songs. We interpret these results as evidence for males increasing song complexity and trilled performance over time in urban habitats, despite performance constraints from urban noise, and suggest a new line of inquiry into how environments alter vocal performance over time. 
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  9. null (Ed.)