Nelson Institute and Forest and Wildlife Ecology welcome assistant professor Zuzana Burivalova

November 1, 2019

Identifying and understanding the best ways to preserve biodiversity in tropical forests is at the heart of Zuzana Burivalova’s research. A 2015 graduate of ETH Zurich and a newly named Nelson Institute and Forest and Wildlife Ecology assistant professor, Burivalova will be researching soundscapes in an effort to better understand how human behavior is impacting biodiversity within tropical rainforests.

A soundscape is a sound or combination of sounds that forms or arises from an immersive environment. Burivalova uses this term to describe the various animal calls that can be heard throughout the forest. Using new tools such as bioacoustic recorders and collaborating with a team of statisticians, computer scientists, and engineers, Burivalova captures these sounds and then analyzes them to learn what, and how many, species are present as well as how those numbers differ as humans use the forest.

“Tropical forests are very noisy, especially in the morning, but we’ve noted that as human behavior impacts it, the forests become quieter,” Burivalova said. “It’s my goal to develop a tool that measures the soundscape and helps us to determine what a normal soundscape is, how it is impacted by seasonality, and how it is impacted by human behavior.”

According to Burivalova, about half of all terrestrial species can be found in tropical forests, so gaining a greater understanding of how these species are being impacted will be a positive step toward the conservation of biodiversity. Burivalova is also interested in using soundscapes to learn which conservation strategies succeed and fail in tropical forest conservation, and where traditional field methods are not sufficient.

“So far, what I’ve found is that there is surprisingly little understanding about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to conserving biodiversity in tropical forests.”

To better understand which conservation strategies are working, Burivalova is compiling an interactive database of studies that showcases patterns of success as well as failures for conservation efforts around the tropical world. She works with journalists to make these into accessible stories.

“I’m excited to be a part of both the Nelson Institute and Forest and Wildlife Ecology as it’s a great way to combine my background in ecology with interdisciplinary research and conservation,” Burivalova said. “It’s wonderful to feel that my interdisciplinary research is supported and that I’m at a place that values applied research. I frequently collaborate with conservation NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and I know how important it is for them to have research results that are directly relevant to the on-the-ground conservation challenges they face. I hope to keep providing that.”

Photo courtesy of Zuzana Burivalova