Although northern bottlenose whales were the most heavily hunted beaked whale, we have little information about this species in its remote habitat of the North Atlantic Ocean. Underwater anthropogenic noise and disruption of their natural habitat may be major threats, given the sensitivity of other beaked whales to such noise disturbance. We attached dataloggers to 13 northern bottlenose whales and compared their natural sounds and movements to those of one individual exposed to escalating levels of 1–2 kHz upsweep naval sonar signals. At a received sound pressure level (SPL) of 98 dB re 1 μPa, the whale turned to approach the sound source, but at a received SPL of 107 dB re 1 μPa, the whale began moving in an unusually straight course and then made a near 180° turn away from the source, and performed the longest and deepest dive (94 min, 2339 m) recorded for this species. Animal movement parameters differed significantly from baseline for more than 7 h until the tag fell off 33–36 km away. No clicks were emitted during the response period, indicating cessation of normal echolocation-based foraging. A sharp decline in both acoustic and visual detections of conspecifics after exposure suggests other whales in the area responded similarly. Though more data are needed, our results indicate high sensitivity of this species to acoustic disturbance, with consequent risk from marine industrialization and naval activity.
Soundscapes and Acoustics
The underwater environment is more and more being depicted as particularly noisy, and the inventory of calling fishes is continuously increasing. However, it currently remains unknown how species share the soundscape and are able to communicate without misinterpreting the messages. Different mechanisms of interference avoidance have been documented in birds, mammals, and frogs, but little is known about interference avoidance in fishes. How fish thus partition the soundscape underwater remains unknown, as acoustic communication and its organization have never been studied at the level of fish communities. In this study, passive acoustic recordings were used to inventory sounds produced in a fish community (120 m depth) in an attempt to understand how different species partition the acoustic environment. We uncovered an important diversity of fish sounds, and 16 of the 37 different sounds recorded were sufficiently abundant to use in a quantitative analysis. We show that sonic activity allows a clear distinction between a diurnal and a nocturnal group of fishes. Moreover, frequencies of signals made during the day overlap, whereas there is a clear distinction between the different representatives of the nocturnal callers because of a lack of overlap in sound frequency. This first demonstration, to our knowledge, of interference avoidance in a fish community can be understood by the way sounds are used. In diurnal species, sounds are mostly used to support visual display, whereas nocturnal species are generally deprived of visual cues, resulting in acoustic constraints being more important.
The interwoven nature of habitats and their acoustic fingerprints (soundscapes) is being increasingly recognized as a key component of animal ecology. Natural soundscapes are crucial for orientation in many different taxa when seeking suitable breeding grounds or settlement habitats. In the marine environment, coral reef noise is an important navigation cue for settling reef fish larvae and is thus a possible driver of reef population dynamics. We explored reef noise across a gradient of reef qualities, tested sound propagation models against field recordings and combined them with fish audiograms to demonstrate the importance of reef quality in determining which reefs larvae are likely to detect. We found that higher-quality reefs were significantly louder and richer in acoustic events (transient content) than degraded reefs, and observed that sound propagated farther with less attenuation than predicted by classic models. We discuss how zones of detection of poor-quality reefs could be reduced by over an order of magnitude compared to healthy reefs. The present study provides new perspectives on the far reaching effects habitat degradation may have on organisms that utilize soundscapes for orientation towards or away from coral reefs, and highlights the value of sound recordings as a cost-effective reef survey and monitoring tool.