Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology University of California
Assessing the impact of disturbance events on cryptic or far- ranging marine mammal species is critically important to stakeholders who must balance project objectives with the environmental impacts of proposed activities. In recent years, considerable scientific interest in this topic has led to key discoveries relating to species-specific sensitivities, behavioral responses, and the physics of disturbance; however, we still lack the ability to predict the effect of potential disturbance events on a population. To better inform stakeholders about the likely consequences of a specific proposed activity, the PCAD (Population Consequences of Acoustic Disturbance) working group established a conceptual framework detailing the impact of disturbance events and how the effects cascade from individuals altering their behavior all the way to population-level demographic effects. The PCAD working group then developed a more rigorous analytical approach (New et al. 2014). These methods require substantial pre-existing knowledge of foraging patterns, life-history schedules, and demographics. Therefore, it is essential to use well-studied species to validate the approach. This is best accomplished by selecting species that are as similar as possible to target species and are also extremely well-studied. We identified northern elephant seals and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins as the best species to parameterize the PCAD model. These species represent two life-history extremes (capital and income breeders), have clear taxonomic separation (pinnipeds and cetaceans), and both species have been studied intensively for several decades, providing unprecedented demographic data. These factors imply that they likely respond to disturbance in unique ways and by developing models for each system, we can effectively bound the input parameters (and expected outputs) for other species of interest. This will be an essential step to eventually apply the model to species for which much less is known.
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