The behavioural response study (BRS) is an experimental design used by field biologists to determine the function and/or behavioural effects of conspecific, heterospecific or anthropogenic stimuli. When carrying out these studies in marine mammals it is difficult to make basic observations and achieve sufficient samples sizes because of the high cost and logistical difficulties. Rarely are other factors such as social context or the physical environment considered in the analysis because of these difficulties. This paper presents results of a BRS carried out in humpback whales to test the response of groups to one recording of conspecific social sounds and an artificially generated tone stimulus. Experiments were carried out in September/October 2004 and 2008 during the humpback whale southward migration along the east coast of Australia. In total, 13 ‘tone’ experiments, 15 ‘social sound’ experiments (using one recording of social sounds) and three silent controls were carried out over two field seasons. The results (using a mixed model statistical analysis) suggested that humpback whales responded differently to the two stimuli, measured by changes in course travelled and dive behaviour. Although the response to ‘tones’ was consistent, in that groups moved offshore and surfaced more often (suggesting an aversion to the stimulus), the response to ‘social sounds’ was highly variable and dependent upon the composition of the social group. The change in course and dive behaviour in response to ‘tones’ was found to be related to proximity to the source, the received signal level and signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). This study demonstrates that the behavioural responses of marine mammals to acoustic stimuli are complex. In order to tease out such multifaceted interactions, the number of replicates and factors measured must be sufficient for multivariate analysis.
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