The National Academy of Sciences selected Geography Professor Florencia Sangermano as a Kavli Fellow — an honor bestowed upon young scientists who have made recognized contributions to science. Of the more than 6,200 Kavli Fellows since 1989, 18 have been awarded the Nobel Prize, and 323 have been elected to the NAS.
Sangermano was one of 13 scientists presenting at the three-day Fifth Israeli-American Symposium, organized by the National Academy of Sciences and the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, in Irvine, California, last October, and one of 185 scientists presenting at the five U.S. and international Kavli Frontiers of Science symposia in 2022.
“This was a wonderful opportunity,” Sangermano said. “There were only three presenters in each session, and we presented to an audience that included multiple disciplines, from physicists to neuroscientists, so there was communication across all the sciences.”
The NAS recognized Sangermano’s research employing acoustics to monitor the health of ecosystems in Central Massachusetts — research she plans to expand to other ecosystems, including Brazil’s 330-million-acre Atlantic Forest, home to 2,200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.
For several years, she has tracked the sounds of birds, humans, and weather — called a soundscape — using speakers set up at multiple ecosystems across Massachusetts, including Massachusetts state forests, Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries, and private lands. Part of her research was recently published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.
“When you go to the doctor, you get your blood pressure taken or they check your heartbeat. In the same way, we can listen to sounds of the ecosystem and evaluate the ecosystem’s health,” Sangermano explained in her Kavli presentation, “Linking Landscapes to Soundscapes: Uncovering the Relationships between Acoustic Diversity, Habitat Structure and Anthropogenic Pressure.”
“The question that we want to ask is: How are all these things connected, and how does that relate to the sounds we are listening to?”
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Sangermano graphs the frequency, amplitude, and length of time of the sounds, transforming them into images. Alongside satellite images showing the relationships among indices indicating the health of habitats, along with human activity, she paints a picture of which ecosystems might be threatened — and how.
“We can connect what we can see in the sounds with what is happening in the landscape,” she said. “I am seeing how urban and suburban expansion affects the sounds of our ecosystems” and “use the sounds to monitor that habitat quality.”
In her research, she uses metrics related to habitat quality, indicating whether forests are connected to each other or have become fragmented due to the construction of housing, businesses, and roads; how much green vegetation exists; the percentage of tree cover; and human impacts from traffic and lights. Areas with less human activity, more connected forests, and more trees were related to increased bird activity, which indicates healthier habitats, Sangermano said.
“When you have higher vegetation productivity, you have more food and more birds,” she noted.
Indices depicting human activity indicate areas where backyards encroach upon woods, creating fragmented forests and spaces for bird predators like raccoons, foxes, larger birds, and pet cats; nighttime lights, which contribute to birds’ confusion over when to stop looking for food, bed down for the night, and conserve their energy; and traffic, which creates noise and keeps birds from communicating with each other about predators.
“As indicators of habitat quality, we can extrapolate them over space and create maps that indicate habitat quality over larger areas,” Sangermano explained in her symposium. “If we combine that information with the amount of change you have in an area, we can start making inferences about which areas we should prioritize for conservation.”
Sangermano is the second scientist from Clark University to be named a Kavli Fellow; Physics Professor Arshad Kudrolli was selected in 2003.