When members of a species invade an area, do they also invade their new neighbors’ eardrums?

A new transdisciplinary research project is merging science and art to not only answer that question, but also allow others an immersive experience of the answer.

“We wanted to measure, record, and document the sound changes to our ecosystems and simultaneously create an experience that would leverage the data we’re collecting to show a new dimension of species invasion,” said Jacob Barney, associate professor of invasive plant ecology.

Working with Meryl Mims, associate professor of biological sciences, and with the financial support and collaboration of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), that experience has come to life and will soon be invading the Cube at the Moss Arts Center.

“You’ll be able to hear what a pond might sound like without invasive species and then what happens when we overlay that audio with bullfrogs, which is exactly what we hear in that environment,” said Mims, whose lab, the Mims Lab, has been investigating the impact of the American bullfrog’s invasion of southwestern states for the past four years. “Bullfrogs are voracious predators, competitors, and disease vectors for native amphibians and are a damaging invasive species across the globe.”

“Acoustic Invasion” will be one of about two dozen innovative research projects representing multiple university colleges and research institutes on display during the annual ICAT Day on May 1 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. In its 10th year, ICAT Day invites the Virginia Tech community and the public to experience these ongoing works and ask questions of the people making them possible.

“Overall, it’s a concentrated chance to see some of the best things Virginia Tech is doing,” said David Franusich, artist and multimedia designer for ICAT. “You can see the news stories, maybe get a picture or video, but with this you’ll get to go in and actually talk to the people doing the work. You’ll get to experience this larger-than-life thing that will show you aspects of research you never thought about.”

“Acoustic Invasion" will also be open to the public, though without its team, during the Moss Arts Center’s open hours on April 29.

A key partner of "Acoustic Invasion," Franusich used his expertise in transdisciplinary art and public art installations to help bring to life to the exhibit. The self-guided tour spans landscapes and soundscapes in both southeast Arizona and Southwest Virginia through the use of imagery and audio from those regions.

“At ICAT, this is what we do,” Franusich said. “We bring artists and designers and creators in to work with scientists to produce something that’s very accessible to the public.”

A camera positioned beside a pond
A 360-degree video camera sits ready for observe this pond in southeast Arizona. Photo courtesy of David Franusich.

“Acoustic Invasion” came as a result of the Global Change Center’s Invasion Species Working Group, of which Barney is the director. Through the group, which is housed in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, he got to know Mims and the work of her lab studying effects of the invasion of the American bullfrog in southwestern states.

“Through one of our interactions, I messaged Meryl and said, ‘Hey, I’ve always wondered if plants change how our ecosystems sound. I mean, they’re not really a sound-making species, but maybe they could change the distribution and abundance of sound-making species,’” Barney said.

Mims said the question seemed like an unexplored piece of what invasive species might do to an entire landscape.

“How they are changing the soundscape itself really hasn’t been explored, and it could potentially be very impactful,” Mims said. “I think what’s so fascinating is that the project has evolved into not just looking at invasive species that directly make noise, but also what happens when you have invasive species that are indirectly changing the soundscape of an environment.”

Having previously worked with Franusich to create an invasive plant species art display, Barney connected the artist and designer with Mims as well postdoctoral researcher Joseph Drake and graduate student Grace O’Malley, and the team secured an ICAT seed grant.

During the summer, the team traveled to the Huachuca Mountains — an isolated mountain range that is part of the “Sky Islands” of southeast Arizona and throughout the Sonoran Desert — and spent a week collecting imagery, 360-degree video, and spatial audio recordings from ponds Mims refers to as “hot spots of biodiversity.” The team later preformed a similar exercise with two areas in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia.

“I can tell you, working with David and this team on this project, it has changed how I think about part of our work in Arizona,” Mims said. “It gets us thinking about new questions and the unseen ways in which invasive species are changing their surroundings.”

Similarly, Barney said engaging with an artist like Franusich from the very beginnings of the research process added a different perspective that was not only valuable to the research, but also to the researchers’ ability to engage people with it.

“I don’t often get to work with artists and non-scientists and think about the questions and systems I work with from such a different perspective,” Barney said. “And then to be able to turn what we work on into something that’s visually and acoustically interesting and engaging to hopefully get people to care, see, hear, and think about nature in a way they haven’t before. It’s just been really cool.”

Though it’s still a little too early in the research process to know exactly how invasive plants might change soundscapes, it’s nearing time for ICAT visitors to experience it firsthand.

“That nature of the Cube and the technology there is what can really immerse people in these places and transport them there,” Franusich said.

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