Universiteit Leiden

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The biologist who wants to sound a different note in his field

Hans Slabbekoorn researches animal sounds and the effect of the noise we humans make on these animals. He is also committed to making his discipline more diverse. Slabbekoorn, a professor of acoustic ecology and behaviour, is therefore developing a research and teaching project in Suriname.

What effect do the sounds of human activity have on animals?

‘Noise from container ships, oil and gas extraction and wind park construction, for example, can disrupt animal behaviour and mask their communication. How do you find a partner as a fish, how do you find your prey and how do you know if a predator is approaching? I also think we shouldn’t just talk about climate change but also about acoustic climate change.

‘Noise is crucial for animals, particularly underwater, because they can’t see very far in water and smell also provides limited information. Noise can therefore have a negative impact on marine species and entire ecosystems. I hope that my research will encourage others to find solutions to noise pollution. Then we can keep the ocean healthy in terms of noise.’

As well as your research into animal noises, you want to push for more diversity in your field. Why is that needed?

‘In the natural sciences, higher positions such as assistant professor, professor or dean are still mostly filled by white men. More diversity is important because you then get multiple perspectives that benefit science.

‘What another perspective can mean was clear when three female researchers took to the hills in the 1960s and 1970s to research chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas. The female researchers then were much more interested in the animals’ personal, positive and subtle social contacts.’

How do you yourself contribute to more diversity within biology?

‘In my lectures I make the students aware of how few women and people of colour there are in biology and that people’s job opportunities differ. Unfortunately,  that is still the case and it is important to recognise that this usually isn’t intentional but comes from unconscious bias. That makes other role models important. My goal is to encourage students to work towards more equality in the future.

‘I also want to start a research and teaching project in Suriname together with the Anton de Kom University in Paramaribo in the next ten years. I hope to help train Surinamese biologists for both the local market and international relations. There must be room for them at universities, NGOs, conservation organisations and ministries. Then they can find a fulfilling career and play an important role for Suriname.’

Hans Slabbekoorn will give his inaugural lecture on 3 March.

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: Unsplash

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