A sound way to help distressed animals

Scientists analyse animal calls to help improve the well-being of livestock.
25 June 2019

Interview with 

Michael Mcloughlin, Queen Mary University of London




Old Mcdonald had a farm, and more recently on his farm he’s been shocked to see the declining living conditions of common livestock. More often than not humans are omnivores, which means meat is a staple in our diet. But as the number of humans on Earth grows, so do the demands for food, and particularly animal products. Some estimates suggest that the average meat eater consumers their own body weight in meat every year. And as the demand increases, we need to ask, where is the line drawn between human nutrition and animal wellbeing? At Queen Mary University of London, they think they’ve come up with a “sound” way to solve the problem. Matthew Hall heard how, from Michael Mcloughlin.

Matthew - Suboptimal animal welfare is a widespread issue plaguing farms. While there are some that have taken initiative and provided more open space for the animals, more often than not they are being raised in industrial facilities also known as factory farms. These farms create a breeding ground for bacteria which leads to abuse of antibiotics and an unhealthy battle to keep the animals from getting sick. It's enough to make Old MacDonald turn in his grave. And despite public knowledge, little has been done to optimise the living conditions of our furry and feathery friends. Fortunately, a team based out of Queen Mary University of London decided to take action in a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface where they are discussing the different confinements seen in farms...

Michael - Yeah, you do have different levels of farming. You would have more intensive kind of farms but you also do have some farms out there where they have higher levels of welfare for the animals.

Matthew - That is lead author Dr Michael Mcloughlin who was a bioacoustician, or someone who studies animal noises.

Michael - So, for example, there will be a difference where you could have two types of indoor farming for chickens, for example. If the chickens are kept in a large shed but they are still able to roam around inside the shed. And then you will also have the more infamous ones which would be the battery cage farms, which they stack up on top of one another. Those are two examples of different indoor farms and there's a world of difference between them.

Matthew - The ultimate goal of the researchers is to improve the overall living conditions for the varying types of farm animals without using invasive methods. To do this, the team has devoted the last two years to developing a deep learning AI that is able to analyse the vocalisations or bioacoustics of pigs, chickens, and cattle. But the question is why these animals specifically?

Michael - If you ever go to a poultry farm the sounds of everything happening is just tremendous. Chickens are always making different types of sounds and there's a lot of information carried on these things. And pigs as well, they are quite vocally active as well, they have different types of communications depending on the situations they are in. This is the kind of stuff that's been established through behavioural research already, and biology research. These animals there's loads of information we can be gathering from them.

Matthew - To better understand the secrets within animal vocalisations it is crucial that the team improves upon the technology. Fortunately for the team, the beginning of the solution was being developed by the popularity of automated analysis in voice recognition software...

Michael - When you think of something like Alexa or OK Google, you speak into your phone and it immediately understands what you're saying. These same types of techniques can be used in machine learning but they require having a lot of information about the actual behaviour of the animals and what different calls can relate to. If you were to take an approach of machine listening, the first step is called feature extraction. If you take a raw audio recording and you were to just start throwing it into a machine learning algorithm, there's so many variables and the information is so complicated that you're probably not going to get the best results. So what you want to do is extract the most important information and features in these recordings. In order to do that, the first thing you usually do is something called a fourier transform.

Matthew - A fourier transform is a method used to take complex signals and break them down into a number of much easier to read waves that have their own frequency, phase, and amplitude values. These acoustic values are acquired to interpret our varying pitches and frequencies when we talk, making them the key in human speech recognition algorithms, in a similar fashion to how Alexa understands your varying pitches and sounds.

Alexa: Play the Naked Scientists.

Animals have been found to have similar changes in pitch and frequency based on their current conditions. As an example, baby chicks are able to make pleasure chirps which are short ascending vocalisations, but also distressed chirps which are short descending vocalisations. These differences are known due to the past experiments that have recorded animals in varying environments of arousal, in turn, allowing the team to optimise their software to listen for chirps or squeals or moos that relate to the overall well-being of the animal. There is still one remaining issue though, what classifies good animal well-being?

Michael - Animal well-being is a very broad term and what one person regards as being good animal well-being, another person may very well be like no, it's not good enough, you know. I think it’s really important to look past just that. So I think one of the things our paper does well is we don’t just talk about things like disease in animals, we also talk about their emotions. One of the things I would really like people to take away is talking about this kind of thing, about animal emotions as well as are they dry, are they happy? We want to raise awareness that it’s more than just making sure that they're looked after, you know, in terms of their physical needs you want to actually have them living enriched lives.

Matthew - An animal that is living its best life is not only good for the animal's health, but in the long run for the consumers as well. Healthier animals mean significantly less hazards after consumption, but even simpler than that it means Old MacDonald can finally rest easy.


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