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Battling Biodiversity Loss in Austria's Wetlands

AI-powered "Guardians" in National Park Neusiedler See - Seewinkel are helping researchers study local species in the unique reed belt ecosystem

Lake Neusiedl is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Austria's Burgenland province. Covering 18,000 hectares and home to Europe's largest contiguous reed belt, the lake enjoys protected status as part of National Park Neusiedler See - Seewinkel.

Located in the core zone of the national park, Lake Neusiedl is home to a treasure trove of species that depend on wetlands, including a vast array of endangered bird species with nationally and internationally significant populations. It's also an essential stopover site for thousands of migratory birds, and provides habitats for a wide range of amphibian and mammal species, including foraging bats.

Lake Neusiedl

However, the delicate balance of this ecosystem is under threat.

The quality of the reed bed habitats is declining, with dieback – the progressive death of twigs, branches, shoots, or roots – having been observed in some areas. There are many reasons for this, but a major cause is the increasing disruption to the natural cycles of the area's water levels. Lake Neusiedl and its reed belt have historically thrived on significant water-level fluctuations, ranging from drying up completely to flooding an area double the lake's size. However, these natural fluctuations have been reduced by the construction of an artificial regulation channel, an outcome that has been exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

Lake Neusiedl

The damage to the reed belt and its fauna is huge. And if things continue as they are, the ecosystem will not survive.

A guardian in tech

Lake Neusiedl
Lake Neusiedl

In August 2021, the Nature Guardian system developed by TECH4ALL partner Rainforest Connection (RFCx) was deployed around Lake Neusiedl. Installed in reed belt habitats of varying quality, the system comprises two online solar-powered Guardians, each covering 3 km2, and 57 offline monitoring devices. Equipped with antennas and microphones, these devices record the local soundscape, including all animal vocalizations, year-round whatever the weather. The acoustics data collected by the online devices is transmitted through a mobile network to the Arbimon platform for analysis by an AI model trained to identify the sounds of specific species.

One major goal of the project is research-based. Acoustics data can deliver unmatched insights into the status of the reed belt, including the existence of ecological niches and the seasonal importance of the belt for birds, amphibians, and mammals. For reed-nesting birds, the data will reveal the short- and long-term effects of changing habitat quality caused by reed dieback. It can also show how birds adapt their songs to changing weather conditions such as strong winds, record nocturnal activity patterns, and provide a comparison between bird frequencies during autumn migration and the trapping rates of reed-belt birds using mist nets.

Atlan Salmon, Norway

These data-led insights will in turn enable the second goal: adaptive conservation management. For example, predictions on the future effects of climate change on flora and fauna can be extrapolated from the data, which can form the basis of countermeasures and adaptive management practices.

Due to the changed hydrological dynamics of the lake, impacts are expected not only on the condition of the reed belt, but also on its biodiversity. With the help of the knowledge gained, we can derive measures in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. Dr. Christian H. Schulze
Department of Botany and Biodiversity Research, University of Vienna

Timeframe and progress

Phase 1: 2021/2022 - Data collection
Phase 2: 2022/2023 - Data transfer into the Arbimon platform
Phase 3: 2023 - Pattern matching and learning
Phase 4: 2023/2024 - AI modeling and sound recognition

  • After training, the system has recognized the majority of reed species with an accuracy of over 95% based on their vocalizations.
  • The study has identified how distinct habitat-specific species assemble together and shows:
  • Individual species have different preferences and each reed habitat harbors different bird communities.
  • Examples of closely related species showing complete niche partitioning include the Savi’s Warbler and Common Grasshopper Warbler
  • Examples of bird species of high conservation value that prefer old reed bed areas include the Little Crake, Moustached Warbler, and Bluethroat.
  • Examples of reed generalists occurring in all three major reed bed habitats include the Common Reed Warbler and Bearded Reedling.
  • Bird species preferring the transition zone include the Common Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler.
  • 70

    Observation stations capture sound data

  • 12 km2

    of the local ecosystem covered

Austria has incredible, untouched ecosystems and enormous biodiversity. It's great that we can finally implement a project in this beautiful country with great partners. Chrissy Durkin
Director of International Expansion, Rainforest Connection

The consequences of climate change are obvious in the area around Lake Neusiedl. From the joint TECH4ALL project, we hope to gain new insights into environmental protection and biodiversity. Thesewill help us to keep the region in good condition for future generations. Astrid Eisenkopf
Deputy Governor, Burgenland