From Individual Responses to Population Effects: Integrating a Decade of Multidisciplinary Research on Blue Whales and Sonar

As ecosystems transform under climate change and expanding human activities, multidisciplinary integration of empirical research, conceptual frameworks and modelling methods is required to predict, monitor and manage the cascading effects on wildlife populations. For example, exposure to anthropogenic noise can lead to changes in the behaviour and physiology of individual marine mammals, but management is complicated by uncertainties on the long-term effects at a population level. We build on a decade of diverse efforts to demonstrate the strengths of integrating research on multiple stressors for assessing population-level effects. Using the case study of blue whales exposed to military sonar in the eastern north Pacific, we model how behavioural responses and environmental effects induced by climate change affect female survival and reproductive success. Environmental changes were predicted to severely affect vital rates, while the current regime of sonar activities was not. Simulated disturbance had a stronger effect on reproductive success than adult survival, as predicted by life-history theory. We show that information on prey resources is critical for robust predictions, as are data on baseline behavioural patterns, energy budgets, body condition and contextual responses to noise. These results will support effective management of the interactions between sonar operations and blue whales in the study area, while providing pragmatic guidance for future data collection to reduce key uncertainties. Our study provides important lessons for the successful integration of multidisciplinary research to inform the assessment of the effects of noise and other anthropogenic stressors on marine predator populations in the context of a changing environment.


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Tags: anthropogenic disturbance, climate change, data integration, marine mammals, mechanistic modelling, Military sonar, population consequences of disturbance, spatial planning


Pirotta, E., C.G. Booth, J. Calambokidis, D.P. Costa, J.A. Fahlbusch, A.S. Friedlaender, J.A. Goldbogen, J. Harwood, E.L. Hazen, L. New, J.A. Santora, S.L. Watwood, C. Wertman, and B.L. Southall. 2022. From Individual Responses to Population Effects: Integrating a Decade of Multidisciplinary Research on Blue Whales and Sonar. Animal Conservation. doi: 10.1111/acv.12785

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