School is out on noisy reefs: the effect of boat noise on predator learning and survival of juvenile coral reef fishes

Open Access Peer Reviewed Publication 2018

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Noise produced by anthropogenic activities is increasing in many marine ecosystems. We investigated the effect of playback of boat noise on fish cognition. We focused on noise from small motorboats, since its occurrence can dominate soundscapes in coastal communities, the number of noise-producing vessels is increasing rapidly and their proximity to marine life has the potential to cause deleterious effects. Cognition-or the ability of individuals to learn and remember information-is crucial, given that most species rely on learning to achieve fitness-promoting tasks, such as finding food, choosing mates and recognizing predators. The caveat with cognition is its latent effect: the individual that fails to learn an important piece of information will live normally until the moment where it needs the information to make a fitness-related decision. Such latent effects can easily be overlooked by traditional risk assessment methods. Here, we conducted three experiments to assess the effect of boat noise playbacks on the ability of fish to learn to recognize predation threats, using a common, conserved learning paradigm. We found that fish that were trained to recognize a novel predator while being exposed to ‘reef thorn boat noise’ playbacks failed to subsequently respond to the predator, while their ‘reef noise’ counterparts responded appropriately. We repeated the training, giving the fish three opportunities to learn three common reef predators, and released the fish in the wild. Those trained in the presence of ‘reef thorn boat noise’ playbacks survived 40% less than the ‘reef noise’ controls over our 72 h monitoring period, a performance equal to that of predator-naive fish. Our last experiment indicated that these results were likely due to failed learning, as opposed to stress effects from the sound exposure. Neither playbacks nor real boat noise affected survival in the absence of predator training. Our results indicate that boat noise has the potential to cause latent effects on learning long after the stressor has gone.

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