Ecological insights from marine acoustic monitoring: Integrating individual behavior, population ecology, and conservation efforts in the North Atlantic right whale
In the marine environment, sound is the predominant mode for communication between organisms. Through studies of the acoustic behavior of marine animals, we can gain insight into broader ecological questions, essentially eavesdropping to fill in critical gaps in life history. The North Atlantic right whale, an endangered baleen whale species, lives off the east coast of the United States and serves as a case study for the potential ecological applications of acoustic data. The need to understand right whale ecology has driven many significant advances in marine acoustic technology, from continuous recorders, to new tags and sophisticated automated acoustic signal detectors. Over the past 15 years, acoustic recordings have greatly expanded our understanding of right whale ecology. These insights have come from multiple temporal and spatial scales of acoustic data collection and demonstrate the potential contributions of acoustics to the broader field of ecology.
Focal animal acoustic behavior from tag data have provide information on behavioral functions of call types, call rates, and individual variation in signal production. Larger scale, longer-term acoustic monitoring to detect right whale vocalizations has revealed details in the timing and routes of right whale migration that were undetected through traditional visual survey techniques. In right whales, this has culminated in a real-time acoustic detection system in the Boston, Massachusetts shipping lanes that alerts mariners in near-real time to the presence of right whales in the area to reduce the risk for lethal interactions. The insights gained into right whale ecology using acoustics can be translated into studies of other endangered, difficult to observe, species that use sound to communicate both in marine and terrestrial environments.