Humpback whales rely on acoustic communication to mediate social interactions. The distance to which these social signals propagate from the signaller defines its communication space, and therefore communication network (number of potential receivers). As humpback whales migrate along populated coastlines, they are likely to encounter noise from vessel traffic which will mask their social signals. Since no empirical data exist on baleen whale hearing, the consequences of this are usually assumed, being the modelled reduction in their communication space. Here, the communication space and network of migrating humpback whales was compared in increasing wind-dominated and vessel-dominated noise. Behavioural data on their social interactions were then used to inform these models. In typical wind noise, a signaller’s communication space was estimated to extend to 4 km, which agreed with the maximum separation distance between groups that socially interacted. An increase in vessel noise reduced the modelled communication area, along with a significant reduction in group social interactions, probably due to a reduction in their communication network. However, signal masking did not fully explain this change in social behaviour, implying there was also an additional effect of the physical presence of the vessel on signaller and receiver behaviour. Though these observed changes in communication space and social behaviour were likely to be short term and localized, an increase in vessel activity due to tourism and coastal population growth may cause more sustained changes along the humpback whale migration paths.
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