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Marine mammals and sonar: dose-response studies, the risk-disturbance hypothesis and the role of exposure context

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article


1. Marine mammals may be negatively affected by anthropogenic noise. Behavioural response studies (BRSs) aim to establish a relationship between the exposure dose of a stressor and associated behavioural responses of animals. A recent series of BRSs have focused on the effects of naval sonar on cetaceans. Here we review the current state of understanding of the impact of sonar on marine mammals and highlight knowledge gaps and future research priorities.
2. Many marine mammal species exhibit responses to naval sonar. However, responses are highly variable between and within individuals, species and populations, highlighting the importance of context in modulating dose-response relationships.
3. There is increasing support for the risk-disturbance hypothesis as an underlying response mechanism. This hypothesis proposes that sonar sounds may be perceived by animals as a threat, evoking an evolved anti-predator response. An understanding of responses within both the dose-response and risk-disturbance frameworks may enhance our ability to predict responsiveness for unstudied species and populations.
4. Many observed behavioural responses are energetically costly, but the way in which these responses may lead to long-term individual and population level impacts is poorly understood.
Synthesis and Applications
Behavioural response studies have greatly enhanced our understanding of the potential effects of navy sonar on marine mammals. Despite data gaps, we believe a dose-response approach within a risk-disturbance framework will enhance our ability to predict responsiveness for unstudied species and populations. We advocate for (1) regulatory frameworks to utilise recent peer-reviewed research findings when making predictions of impact (where feasible within assessment cycles), (2) regulatory frameworks to account for the inherent uncertainty in predictions of impact, and (3) investment in monitoring programmes that are both directed by recent research and offer opportunities for validation of predictions at the individual and population level.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)396-404
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date20 Jul 2017
StatePublished - Jan 2018

    Research areas

  • Sonar, Cetaceans, Human disturbance, Impact assessment, Anti-predator response, Anthropogenic noise, Behavioural response, Marine mammals, Dose response

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