Hi there! Nice to see you! I will no longer be updating this page. If you are interested in my research – please visit https://www.biodiversityconservationsolutions.com/ to see what I’ve been up to!

I am a conservation scientist at Carleton University aiming to support conservation policy and practice with robust evidence. My main research interests include soundscapes, seabird ecology, ecological restoration, and systematic conservation planning. My research focuses on the impact of noise pollution and the benefits of natural sound, quantifying the relationship between sound and biodiversity patterns, and the importance of the acoustic environment for the health of wildlife and humans. I also examine information gaps to achieve biodiversity conservation targets in Canada. I work with groups of practitioners, decision-makers, Indigenous peoples, and stakeholders to ensure my research is applicable for mobilizing effective conservation solutions. In drawing from my experiences as a research scientist, mom, life-long learner, teacher, mentor, and community member, I am committed to making a difference for biodiversity conservation and environmental justice.

Soundscape conservation in the United States

My previous research at Colorado State University examined the effects of human noise on wildlife.  This includes noise from oil & gas development, namely fracking:

Fracking well, Piceance Basin, Colorado
Fracking well, Piceance Basin, Colorado

Within the past 5 years, with the collapse in oil prices, the amount of development and activity associated with natural gas has declined in western Colorado.  We were interested in how animals and soundscapes recover from anthropogenic noise.  To examine recovery we paired an array of acoustic recorders and camera traps.

Placing a Song Meter (acoustic recorder) and camera trap in the Piceance Basin
Placing a Song Meter (acoustic recorder) and camera trap in the Piceance Basin

We were also looking at the impacts of motorcycle noise as a result of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which passes through Devils Tower National Monument:

Devils Tower National Monument
Devils Tower National Monument

2015 was the 75th anniversary of the rally and the park hosted upwards of a million motorcyclists in 4 days.  The park was inundated with noise, affecting the roadside Prairie dog colony, a large diversity of birds and bats, and the resident white-tailed dear population.

Finally, we examined the impact of noise on wildlife and visitor experience within US protected areas and national parks.  My postdoc was in collaboration with the National Parks Service Natural Sounds and Night Skies program who have recently mapped noise impacts across the country

Map of existing sound conditions, where bright areas represent locations with high noise impact
Map of existing sound conditions, where bright areas represent locations with high noise impact

We found that noise pollution is pervasive in US protected areas

Map of median noise levels in each protected area across the US, showing that noise is pervasive

Seabird Island Restoration in New Zealand

My PhD thesis examined the rates and drivers of seabird population recovery after the removal of human-introduced predators.  I worked with local iwi groups (Maori), government agencies, and crown research institutes to examine how seabirds recover, and how their recovery is integral to the restoration of coastal ecosystems and cultural traditions.

Māori whakairo (carving)

Burrow-nesting seabirds are important animals in New Zealand: they act as ecosystem engineers, where soils are fertilized and aerated through guano deposition and burrow digging.

Cleared leaf litter, exposed tree roots, and tilled soil due to dense petrel burrows

They are also cultural keystone species, where petrel chicks are harvested by Maori as a source of food and cultural cohesion.

Evidence suggests that, prior to human colonization of New Zealand c. 800 ybp, the main islands housed large petrel colonies.  However, with habitat destruction and the introduction of mammalian predators, petrel populations were largely restricted to predator-free offshore islands.  Furthermore, studies have shown that islands where predators reduced petrel populations to very small numbers exhibit altered ecosystem structure and function.  Thus, the restoration of coastal cultural and biological systems in New Zealand will be closely tied to the recovery of burrow-nesting seabird populations.   My PhD research sought to examine which factors facilitate or hinder the natural recovery of burrow-nesting seabird populations after predator removal – in order to prioritize sites where further population management may be required.

Grey-faced petrel (Oi in Maori) fledgling stretching its wings outside a burrow
Grey-faced petrel (Oi in Maori) fledgling stretching its wings outside a burrow

Island Restoration in Alaska

My MSc research at Memorial University of Newfoundland, was situated in the picturesque Aleutian Islands, Alaska.  This archipelago stretches 1800 km between Alaska and Russia and houses some of the most incredible avifauna in the world.

The Aleutian Islands
Crested and Least Auklets, an example of the amazing and unique avifauna of the Aleutian Islands

This includes the most diverse seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere at Buldir Island.  Experiencing the deafening sounds of over 6 million nocturnal seabirds returning from their long ocean journey to find a mate and breed, is one of the worlds most impressive spectacles.

Because nocturnal seabirds interact with one another in complete darkness, visual displays (like a beautiful plumage or courtship dances) are out of the question.  Instead, nocturnal seabirds communicate using their loud and strange calls.  Each individual seabird has it’s own unique call, so that they can be identified within a dense colony of millions of birds.

Spectrograms of a few nocturnal burrow-nesting seabird calls and their associated behaviours

My research concerned the use of acoustic recording to monitor nocturnal seabirds, specifically Leach’s and Fork-tailed Storm-petrels and Ancient Murrelets.

“Song Meter” (an acoustic recording device… flowers not included)

Nocturnal burrow-nesting seabird populations were decimated by the introduction of Arctic foxes for the fur trade and the accidental introduction of Norway Rats during WWII.  Entire colonies were destroyed, as foxes and rats ate their way through chicks and eggs.  Seabird populations, for the most part, have benefitted from the removal of introduced foxes  (e.g. Pigeon Guillemots and Oystercatcher populations have quadrupled).  However, the effect of eradication is unknown for nocturnal burrow-nesting seabirds, because they are so difficult to study.  They visit the breeding colony only in the pitch dark and nest a meter underground.  Also, the Aleutians are expansive (300+ islands across 1800 kms) and expensive to reach, survey teams are equally as expensive, and nocturnal burrow-nesting seabirds are nearly impossible to monitor.  My research aimed to show that acoustic monitoring (recording night-time calls as a measure of relative abundance) can provide a cheap way to census nocturnal birds across the Aleutians as they recover after decades of damage done by Arctic foxes.

4 Responses to Home

  1. Karl schultz says:

    Hey Rachel!! Just read about your study in science, and it begs the question: what other sensory pollution are we contributing, and how is it affecting animals? Obviously light pollution has been something researched quite a bit, particularly up here in Alaska. One potential that springs to mind is olfactory (which is a bit harder to measure objectively), seeing as how that plays a role in food detection as well as reproduction, and we humans with our waste and byproducts are exceptionally stinky animals. Is there currently research in any of the other senses?

  2. Jacques McNett says:

    As a CSU Widlife Biology graduate. Appreciate your valuable contributions and continuing endeavors to help understand and save our natural resources.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your effort, though this issue has been the focus of non-scientist for some time, perhaps two or three decades. Perhaps anthropogenic noise will be the death of H. sapien. Got a loud Harley-Davidson motorcycle?

  4. rachelbuxton says:

    Hi Karl, Sorry for my late reply (3 years – sorry!) Check out these papers: Halfwerk W & Slabbekoorn H (2015) Pollution going multimodal: the complex impact of the human-altered sensory environment on animal perception and performance. Biol. Lett. 11(4):20141051. and Dominoni DM, et al. (2020) Why conservation biology can benefit from sensory ecology. Nature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1135-4., which can provide some citations to other work on olfaction – chemical pollution is certainly an active area of sensory research. Cheers!

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