Acoustic Monitoring and Community Science at the Natural History Museum

Calling all Citizen Scientists! How you can get involved with the UK's first mass study on the impact of noise pollution on insects.

Published on 8th July 2024

One year ago London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) launched Nature Overheard, the UK’s first mass study on the impact of noise pollution on insects.

The impact of noise

Two people are crossing a road with a car in front of them, a bush with pick flowers in the foreground.

© Abigail Lowe

Although noise pollution is known to cause behavioural changes in many animals, the impact on insects is poorly understood.

We do know that many invertebrates (including Hymenoptera, Diptera and Lepidoptera) can hear within the main frequency spectra of much anthropogenic noise and may undergo evolutionary adaptation and behavioural plasticity in response. For example:

  • Lampe et al. found that male bow-winged grasshoppers (Chorthippus biguttulus) collected from noisy roadsides sang with a greater low-frequency component than males collected from paired quiet areas nearby.
  • Davis et al. found that a 2-hour exposure of monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) larvae to recorded traffic noise increased heart rates.

    It is estimated that the annual social cost of urban road noise in England is £7 billion to £10 billion. Can we find mitigations that also support biodiversity recovery?

    Changing the scope, scale and speed of acoustic monitoring

    Over the last few years, the NHM has been running the Urban Nature Project to deliver action for biodiversity. It is creating a movement for urban nature through a range of projects, including the garden redesign at the Museum, onsite training programmes, national learning and community science projects (Nature Overheard).

    In terms of bioacoustics, the Urban Nature Project is:

    • Changing the scope, scale and speed of acoustic monitoring
    • Bringing technology to environmental challenges
    • Integrating bioacoustics with other methods

    The Urban Nature Project currently monitors the Museum Gardens’ biodiversity using visual and eDNA methods. From later this year, they will be complemented by:

    • Bioacoustic and environmental parameters across a 25-point sensor array
    • Detailed case studies of how habitat translocation, creation and restoration actions impact biodiversity
    • Data infrastructure to capture, share and support co-analysis and visualisation of these multiple data types

    How can we make roads better for nature?

    Natural History Museum and Nature Overheard logos

    Nature Overheard is a citizen science project that enables bioacoustics work in the NHM gardens to be increased at a groundbreaking scale, something never before attempted. We are collecting thousands of recordings from across the UK to understand how insects are impacted by road noise pollution and ultimately how we can make our roads better for nature.

    Thanks to innovative machine-learning technology capable of isolating insect sounds from background noise, we will be able to:

    • Automate the categorisation of sounds
    • Identify any changes in the sounds that insects and other animals are making in urban areas
    • Determine which human and mechanical sounds may be having an impact on the environment

    Collecting as many audio samples as possible is important: the more data that is collected, the easier it becomes to analyse the recordings.

    We are aiming to collect 2,000 recordings by the end of September 2024—and we hope you will join us!

    How you can get involved

    An urban roadside with shrubs trees and grass and parked cards on the right, and a pedestrian pathway on the left.

    © Giuliana Sinclair

    All you need is the survey booklet, a few spare minutes and a mobile phone.

    In a 10 m x 2 m rectangle of greenspace, parallel to any road:

    1. Record audio for 5 minutes—capturing both the sounds of nature and human generated noise.
    2. Walk through your survey area and record any insects you see (ID to order level i.e. beetle, butterfly, moth, bee, ant, fly, etc.)
    3. Upload your data online—don't worry if you haven't seen too much or can't hear insects on your audio—all survey data counts!

    We welcome multiple repeat surveys. If each of you carries out three surveys on your local roads, even if it's the same road on three separate occasions, that would give us a fantastic head-start.

    Each audio recording you collect contributes to real scientific research that will directly inform how we make roads better for nature.

    As members or supporters of the Linnean Society, the NHM or of citizen science in general, we hope you'll follow this link and get involved today!

    Giuliana Sinclair

    (Nature Overheard, Urban Nature Project, Natural History Museum, London)

    Davis A. K., Schroeder H., Yeager I. and Pearce J. (2018). Effects of simulated highway noise on heart rates of larval monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus: Implications for roadside habitat suitability. Biology Letters 14: 20180018. (

    Lampe U., Schmoll T., Franzke A. and Reinhold K. (2012). Staying tuned: grasshoppers from noisy roadside habitats produce courtship signals with elevated frequency components. Functional Ecology 26: 1,348–1,354. (doi:10.1111/1365-2435.12000).

    Social cost of urban road noise: