From individual responses to population effects: integrating a decade of multidisciplinary research on blue whales and sonar

Enrico Pirotta*, Cormac Booth, John Calambokidis, Daniel Costa, James Fahlbusch, Ari Friedlaender, Jeremy Goldbogen, John Harwood, Elliot Hazen, Leslie New, Jarrod A Santora, Stephanie Watwood, Christina Wertman, Brandon Southall

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)796-810
Number of pages15
JournalAnimal Conservation
Issue number6
Early online date15 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished - 23 Dec 2022


  • Anthropogenic disturbance
  • Spatial planning
  • Population consequences of disturbance
  • Military sonar
  • Mechanistic modelling
  • Marine mammals
  • Data integration
  • Climate change


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