Common dolphin whistle response to experimental mid-frequency sonar

Caroline Casey*, Selene Fregosi, Julie Nicola Oswald, Vincent M. Janik, Fleur Visser, Brandon Southall

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Oceanic delphinids that occur in and around Navy operational areas are regularly exposed to intense military sonar broadcast within the frequency range of their hearing. However, empirically measuring the impact of sonar on the behavior of highly social, free-ranging dolphins is challenging. Additionally, baseline variability or the frequency of vocal state-switching among social oceanic dolphins during undisturbed conditions is lacking, making it difficult to attribute changes in vocal behavior to anthropogenic disturbance. Using a network of drifting acoustic buoys in controlled exposure experiments, we investigated the effects of mid-frequency (3–4 kHz) active sonar (MFAS) on whistle production in short-beaked (Delphinus delphis delphis) and long-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis bairdii) in southern California. Given the complexity of acoustic behavior exhibited by these group-living animals, we conducted our response analysis over varying temporal windows (10 min– 5 s) to describe both longer-term and instantaneous changes in sound production. We found that common dolphins exhibited acute and pronounced changes in whistle rate in the 5 s following exposure to simulated Navy MFAS. This response was sustained throughout sequential MFAS exposures within experiments simulating operational conditions, suggesting that dolphins may not habituate to this disturbance. These results indicate that common dolphins exhibit brief yet clearly detectable acoustic responses to MFAS. They also highlight how variable temporal analysis windows–tuned to key aspects of baseline vocal behavior as well as experimental parameters related to MFAS exposure–enable the detection of behavioral responses. We suggest future work with oceanic delphinids explore baseline vocal rates a-priori and use information on the rate of change in vocal behavior to inform the analysis time window over which behavioral responses are measured.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0302035
Number of pages21
JournalPLoS One
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 26 Apr 2024


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