Rolex Award Winner Michel André Is Changing Our View of Nature by Listening to It

In the profound darkness of an Amazon jungle night, Michel André heard something that stopped him in his tracks — deep, rumbling, resonant. It was a sound he’d never heard before. And for someone who spends his days listening to the constant soundtrack of the jungle, that is saying something. “It was a truly frightening sound, very deep, like a big animal would produce,” says the French scientist. “I thought it was a monster.” It turned out to be a small frog — much to the amusement of André’s local guides — and a reminder that, even after decades spent listening to the sounds of nature, he still hasn’t heard it all.

“Sound is the only kind of information that all communities on earth share — plants, animals, terrestrial and aquatic life,” explains André, who is the director of the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) at the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona. As a bioacoustic scientist, his job is to listen to these sounds, parse them for data, and use that information to protect the world’s threatened ecosystems and species. “We monitor biodiversity to understand the threats to it,” he says. “What we call the ‘landscape of sound’ indicates the biodiversity of a habitat, and it also indicates if there is a loss in this habitat. At the same time, if we regenerate an area, we hear species coming back in the richness and diversity of sound that we capture.”

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In the early 2000s, André conducted groundbreaking work in Spain. By listening to whales’ distinctive calls, he monitored their positions and used that data to keep marine traffic at a safe distance. “This was an emerging problem that wasn’t known at all,” says André.

In addition to preventing countless collisions between whales and ships, André’s work earned him a Rolex Award for Enterprise, an honour awarded to innovators who are working to advance human knowledge and well-being around the world. “Because noise pollution is often inaudible to human ears, the Rolex award allowed me to make this invisible pollution visible,” says André. “It also helped to convince the Spanish government to support the creation of the first lab to study these effects at a planetary level.”

André’s work in Spain has since grown into the LIDO project (Listening to the Deep-Ocean Environment): a network of 22 underwater observation sites scattered across the world’s oceans. The global recognition that resulted from the Rolex award also helped André diversify into a variety of new conservation projects, including establishing listening stations at the poles and competing for the XPRIZE Rainforest, a $10 million, five-year competition to create autonomous technologies to enhance our understanding of the rainforest’s ecosystems. “We know that nature is getting close to a rupture point,” says André. “Humankind is threatened due to the loss of biodiversity, and these initiatives are key for our survival.”

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André’s current project involves deploying thousands of devices called “providence nodes” across three million hectares of the Amazon jungle and using them to help understand life on the ground there. “The Amazon is a crucial part of the balance of the planet. We have information from aerial photographs about the number of trees that are lost to deforestation, but we don’t know about life below the canopy. There are areas of the Amazon that we have no data on at all.”

“Sound is the only kind of information that all communities on earth share — plants, animals, terrestrial and aquatic life.”

These providence nodes are equipped with acoustic, visual, and environmental sensors that will allow André and his team — with the help of Indigenous communities on the ground — to monitor these areas, extract information, and use that data to help protect these delicate ecosystems.

Thanks to his decades long career monitoring the chaotic symphony of life on earth, André is convinced that listening to the sounds of the world around us holds the keys to mending our fractured relationship with the natural world. “I believe there is a common system of communication that allows all living creatures on earth to communicate,” he says. “We lost this capability when we started to speak and became separate from nature. So, to me, the only way we can become part of nature again — and secure our future — is to come back to listening to nature. If we all do that, we will regain this connection we have lost.”