Behavioral responses to predatory sounds predict sensitivity of cetaceans to anthropogenic noise within a soundscape of fear

Patrick J. O. Miller*, Saana Isojunno, Eilidh Siegal, Frans-Peter A. Lam, Petter H. Kvadsheim, Charlotte Curé

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


Acoustic signals travel efficiently in the marine environment, allowing soniferous predators and prey to eavesdrop on each other. Our results with four cetacean species indicate that they use acoustic information to assess predation risk and have evolved mechanisms to reduce predation risk by ceasing foraging. Species that more readily gave up foraging in response to predatory sounds of killer whales also decreased foraging more during 1- to 4-kHz sonar exposures, indicating that species exhibiting costly antipredator responses also have stronger behavioral reactions to anthropogenic noise. This advance in our understanding of the drivers of disturbance helps us to predict what species and habitats are likely to be most severely impacted by underwater noise pollution in oceans undergoing increasing anthropogenic activities. As human activities impact virtually every animal habitat on the planet, identifying species at-risk from disturbance is a priority. Cetaceans are an example taxon where responsiveness to anthropogenic noise can be severe but highly species and context specific, with source–receiver characteristics such as hearing sensitivity only partially explaining this variability. Here, we predicted that ecoevolutionary factors that increase species responsiveness to predation risk also increase responsiveness to anthropogenic noise. We found that reductions in intense-foraging time during exposure to 1- to 4-kHz naval sonar and predatory killer whale sounds were highly correlated (r = 0.92) across four cetacean species. Northern bottlenose whales ceased foraging completely during killer whale and sonar exposures, followed by humpback, long-finned pilot, and sperm whales, which reduced intense foraging by 48 to 97level responses to killer whale playbacks, implying a similar level of perceived risk. The correlation cannot be solely explained by hearing sensitivity, indicating that species- and context-specific antipredator adaptations also shape cetacean responses to human-made noise. Species that are more responsive to predator presence are predicted to be more disturbance sensitive, implying a looming double whammy for Arctic cetaceans facing increased anthropogenic and predator activity with reduced ice cover.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2114932119
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number13
Early online date21 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 29 Mar 2022


  • Evolution
  • Cetacea
  • Disturbance
  • Naval sonar
  • Risk-disturbance hypothesis


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