PeerJ Award Winners at the 3rd African Bioacoustics Community Conference

by | Nov 7, 2022 | Award Winner Interviews, Awards, Community, Conferences, Societies

This past October, the African Bioacoustics Community (ABC) hosted their 3rd conference. After the huge success of the first two conferences held in 2018 at the University of Cape Town, and in 2020 online, the ABC team wanted something special for their 3rd event. From the 2nd to the 7th of October, the 3rd African Bioacoustics Community Conference was held at the Nombolo Mdhluli Conference Centre in Skukuza Rest Camp, the largest rest camp in the Kruger National Park. This national park, the pride of South Africa, was the perfect setting for this year’s event. The conference included 4 days of conference presentations and one day of full-day workshops from amazing scientists from all over the globe. Delegates were treated to world class research from 6 plenary addresses, 54 oral presentations, and 12 poster presentations. Not to mention many conference events such as a movie night, participatory art exhibitions, and evening and morning recording sessions, to name a few. There were also three full day workshops on the 7th of October, dealing with animal emotions, with Elodie Briefer, AudioMoth acoustic devices with Andy Hall and Ruby Lee, and the application of acoustic research with Simon Elwen. The 2022 African Bioacoustics Community Conference was a huge success and ABC team are so grateful to their sponsors and participants for their contributions.


Erin Ross-Marsh, ABC Admin Team


Matteo Sebastianelli Ph.D candidate at University of Cyprus, Cyprus.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I graduated in 2016 with a B.A. (Hons) in Natural Sciences at La Sapienza University of Rome, after which I moved to the UK where I started a Master of Research in Tropical Forest Ecology at Imperial College London. Supervised by Dr. Joe Tobias, for my thesis I studied the territorial interactions of two sympatric Warbling Antbirds in the Peruvian Amazon. After completion of the MRes in 2018, I moved to the Behavioural Ecology and Evolution lab at University of Cyprus where I currently study the genetic and environmental drivers of song variation in a species complex whose songs are innate: the Pogoniulus tinkerbirds. Specifically, I aim to understand what environmental factors affect variation of song pitch and pace as well as identify genomic regions that underpin such characters in tinkerbirds.

What first interested you in this field of research?

The vast diversity of birds found on Earth, with their infinite variety of shapes, colours and sounds has ignited my intellectual curiosity from a young age. My current studies are nothing but the continuation of this lifelong passion. In the past years, I had the opportunity to work on different projects in the most biodiverse areas of the planet, including Neotropical, Afrotropical and Oriental tropical forests. These experiences in such distinct areas eventually drove my research interest in the processes that generate diversity.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the African Bioacoustics Community Conference 2022?

I presented what will be the second chapter of my Ph.D dissertation. In this study (available open access in Ecology Letters), we show for the first time that Bergmann’s rule applies to acoustic signals. Indeed, the effect of increases in latitude and elevation have a much stronger effect on song pitch in Pogoniulus tinkerbirds (barbets) than other factors, including the widely supported acoustic adaptation hypothesis (AAH).

Our study taxa, tinkerbirds, are distributed across sub-Saharan Africa and strikingly, their song pitch, calculated in more than 1700 recordings, mirrors the latitudinal and elevational pattern we found in morphology from over 1300 individuals across four species. Although some of the previous work in our lab has documented a relationship between body size and elevation at a local scale (e.g. Kirschel et al. 2009, PNAS), and with latitude among some subspecies (Kirschel et al. 2021, Bull B.O.C.), this is the first time we have investigated a pattern of Bergmann’s and also Allen’s rule (relative beak size to body size) across several species at the continental scale, and most importantly the first time we have associated such patterns with acoustic traits.

The strong relationship we find between body size and song pitch could mean that such broad-scale patterns could be reflected throughout the animal kingdom in species whose acoustic frequency is dependent on body size. Furthermore, because patterns consistent with Bergmann’s rule are attributed to physiological responses to ambient temperature, climate change may lead to a predictable change in the pitch of acoustic signals in endotherms.

With Sifiso Lukhele in one of many expeditions in South Africa

How will you continue to build on this research?

After investigating the effects of environmental factors at different scales in the first two chapters of my dissertation, I will study the genetics of tinkerbird song and how hybridization among related species can affect its expression.

In the coming months, I will investigate areas of the tinkerbird genome that underpin species differences in song pitch and pace. These candidate areas could play an important role in maintaining species boundaries and therefore generating biodiversity.


Shahir Ramndit MSc Candidate, University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa and Sharklife Conservation Group.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I completed both my undergraduate degree and Honours degree in Marine Biology. The ocean and ocean conservation are large parts of my life and the focal points of my areas of study.

My research interests lie in using marine acoustics to analyse South African marine environments and characterise their soundscapes in a similar way to terrestrial environments. This presents the chance to gain information about these marine environments much faster and allows for long term monitoring of these areas to develop in South Africa, which in turn can lead to faster outputs of data needed for policy makers and decision makers to take further steps for continued conservation of our oceans.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the African Bioacoustics Community Conference 2022?

My presentation focused on attempts to characterise and analyse the soundscape of Sodwana Bay’s coral reef systems using acoustic indices. Acoustic indices summarises a specific aspect of acoustic energy and information and presents them as a single value. Some acoustic indices are based on evenness, entropy, complexity etc; there are differences between the indices, because they’re based on different aspects of sound. The underwater sounds were recorded through P.A.M (Passive Acoustic Monitoring), which is a non-invasive way of collecting data and allows for long term data collecting.

Soundscape analyses through the use and calculation of acoustic indices have the ability to assist with determining species diversity and ecosystem health; however, they cannot be used as a direct proxy of biodiversity yet. The main categories of sounds used for this study are anthropophony, geophony and biophony. Species diversity counts for this study are to be conducted by using supplementary video and image captures.

Sharklife Conservation Group

The study sites are of three coral reef systems in the greater iSimanagliso Wetland Park MPA. Each of these sites vary in the intensity of anthropogenic disturbance, with once of the study sites being the most ecologically significant aggregation sites for ragged toothed sharks in South Africa. These varied reef systems also present a chance to make comparisons of between different sites.

How will this type of research be beneficial to the study area, as well as other similar areas?

Much of South Africa’s MPA’s have great biodiversity in them, with Sodwana Bay and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park MPA being a UNESCO World Heritage site. Understanding the soundscape of these areas will allow for better management and protection of these areas. One of the ways this acoustic monitoring can be utilised in protected areas is to detect poaching vessels in parallel with boat launch logs, since only research vessels are allowed into certain protected areas.

How will you continue to build on this research?

The next steps of the project involved sorting the data into three distinct categories, for now, and identifying as many species as possible in the study sites in order to gauge the known biodiversity and species richness, and weigh that against the eventual calculated species diversity and richness with assistance of the acoustic indices being used.

The classification of these sounds will also assist in the construction of marine sound libraries in South Africa. Eventually, I hope to accumulate enough data in order to try a machine learning approach to characterise underwater sounds in the area. Once this research is completed; the results and outcomes will hopefully allow for this approach to be used in South Africa’s many MPA’s.


Kyle-Mark Middleton Ph.D candidate at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, South Africa.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I am a South African who lives on the outskirts of Kruger National Park in the Limpopo province. I have always had a passion for the outdoors and knew from a young age that I wanted to pursue a career in anything that would involve me in nature. I was fortunate enough to start working with the APNR Ground-Hornbill Project in 2016 where I became fascinated by the species and their oddities. A particular life-history tactic appealed most to me though, and that was their cooperative breeding behaviour, where entire groups engage in several group tasks, including reproduction and territory defence.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the African Bioacoustics Community Conference 2022?

The research I presented focussed on their territorial behaviours and how they use vocalisations as a means to advertise and defend their territories. Southern ground-hornbills have only a single adult female per group (maximum of 12 members) and produce low-frequency booming chorus vocalisations every morning which can be heard over several kilometers. Since the species live in such low densities (on average one group per 100km2), the ability to recognise who is calling may provide the listener with the benefit of determining whether a potential intruder is a serious threat or not. I analysed these chorus vocalisations and found that the females within each group were producing vocalisations which had unique signatures encoded in their melodies, and could be correctly classified with a 94% success rate using a machine learning algorithm. I then tested whether groups were using this information by playing back the calls of different groups to see if they responded more aggressively to familiar groups (those on neighbouring territories), or unfamiliar groups (those groups from further away). However, we found only marginal evidence that groups responded differently to the groups of neighbours and strangers, suggesting that neighbours and strangers pose similar levels of threat to territory holders. We did, however, find that larger territory holding groups responded more aggressively than smaller groups.

You have previously won a PeerJ award at the African Bioacoustics Community Conference – Is this an expansion on what you presented there, or do you have a different focus at the moment?

I won the PeerJ award from the last African Bioacoustics Conference from presenting my initial results on the signatures. This conference I presented my expanded final results with the playback experiments added which brought it together.

How will you continue to build on this research?

Moving forward, I would like to further this research by investigating the roles of the males in these chorus vocalisations. I would also like to investigate the conservation opportunities that these results may provide. Southern Ground-Hornbills are listed as Endangered within South Africa and groups can be difficult to find and distinguish. Using the group signatures, we may be able to remotely identify groups which can aid conservation, as well as other research efforts.

Cassie Carstens

Franziska Feist Mres at Université Jean Monnet Saint Etienne, France.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

Although I started my academic career in an entirely different field – my official undergraduate degree title is “Neuroscience with Criminological Studies” – I soon realised that I was more interested in studies of animals rather than humans. I also didn’t really enjoy the lab work, and wanted something that would get me out into the field. So, for my first masters, I decided to steer my career into a different direction, towards ethology. My keen interest in studies of behaviour, cognition and sociality, which initially inspired me to study neuroscience, is still there, but now revolves around animals. While I’m not really focussed on any particular species, I’ve ended up studying seabirds twice now – first Herring gulls and then African penguins, and I think I would like to continue in that direction. Something about the marine environment and associated challenges for cognition and communication is very interesting to me. As such, I’m currently in the process of wrapping up my project results by turning them into manuscripts for publication, while also already on the lookout for PhD positions in related areas (I can be contacted through

What first interested you in this field of research?

I couldn’t pinpoint one specific moment. I know I’ve always liked animals, and I still really enjoy just watching them go about their days. It is part of why I do photography as a hobby on the side. Together with wanting to be in the field to study animal behaviour, I think that is what brought me here today. Plus a few things that I tried along the way until I realised they were not for me.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at the African Bioacoustics Community Conference 2022?

The research I presented there was part of my masters project for the International Master of Bioacoustics at the Université Jean Monnet Saint Etienne, where we all had to conduct a research project during a 6-month internship, and mine led me to South Africa. We set out to investigate whether Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) could be used to develop a remote acoustic monitoring tool for an African penguin colony, which would be a cost-effective tool that reduces disturbances to colonies (penguins are very sensitive to human disturbances) and helps with monitoring remote, difficult to access colonies.

How will you continue to build on this research?

While my work on this project is done, and we are preparing manuscripts for publication based on my final report, I believe that students from next year’s cohort from this masters course will continue the project, working on different aspects. Personally, my own next steps will ideally be a PhD in one or more of my areas of interest.



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