Whales 'scared' by sonars, but scientist say its not just sonars that could cause problems

Mar 14, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Beaked whales are frightened by sonars used to hunt for submarines, according to new research.

However, researchers at the University of St Andrews have found that it is not just the sound produced by sonars that frightens away nearby beaked whales.

It has long been suspected that the untimely death of some beaked whales during the time of naval anti-submarine exercises has been caused by the sonars used to detect submarines.

In the study published today, the research suggests that beaked whales are particularly sensitive to unusual sounds, including the noise caused by sonars.

The experts worked with an international group of scientists in the new study of the effects of sounds on the behaviour of beaked whales in the Bahamas.

The team played sonar sounds to whales in the wild and made precise measurements of their responses using an electronic tag attached to the whales. The tag measured all the sounds heard by the whales and their subsequent swimming movements.

Professor Ian Boyd from the University of St Andrews was the Chief Scientist. He commented, “We showed that the animals reacted to the sonar sound at much lower levels than had previously been assumed to be the case. We stopped exposing the animals to the sounds before there were any dangerous effects but it was clear that these whales moved quickly out of the way the sonars. We now think that, in some unusual circumstances, they are just unable to get out of the way and this ends up with the animals stranding and dying.”

“There was always a strong association between the death of these strange, little-known animals and naval exercises. We have now shown that this may well be the case.”

However, the researchers are cautious to note that these effects might only be caused by sonars. Professor Boyd continued, “There is a tendency to blame the Navy for every stranding event and that is ridiculous. We are now beginning to understand that some species of whales and dolphins appear to be much more robust to disturbance by sound than others.”

“We also found that beaked whales responded in the same way to sounds other than sonars, included the calls of killer whales. It appears that they just don’t like unusual sounds but the way in which sonars are used to hunt for submarines may mean that the whales are more vulnerable to that type of sound.”

Beaked whales are cryptic creatures and extraordinarily difficult to study. Despite being about the size of a rhinoceros and present in reasonable numbers offshore, many mariners will never have seen one. Researchers believe that because they are very timid, and avoid shallow coastal areas, they move away from ships or dive when aircraft pass overhead.

Professor Boyd and his team say they may have possible solutions to the problem of anti-submarine sonars, but that the broader implications are quite serious.

He explained, “I can see some quite robust advice being provided based upon our results that can help naval activity avoid the problem of causing beaked whales to strand, but I am also worried that the general levels of that humans make in the ocean from all sorts of sources like ships, oil and gas exploration and renewable energy may be a much more serious problem for beaked whales and some other sensitive species. Perhaps the most significant result from our experiments is the extreme sensitivity of these animals to disturbance.”

Explore further: Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

More information: The research paper “Beaked Whales Respond to Simulated and Actual Navy Sonar” will be published by PLoS ONE online at dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017009

Provided by University of St Andrews

4.2 /5 (10 votes)

Related Stories

Beaked Whales Perform Extreme Dives to Hunt Deepwater Prey

Oct 20, 2006

A study of ten beaked whales of two poorly understood species shows their foraging dives are deeper and longer than those reported for any other air-breathing species. This extreme deep-diving behavior is of particular interest ...

Sperm whales return to Mediterranean

Feb 14, 2007

Marine biologists in Italy say the sperm whale, once thought to have been nearly wiped from the region by drift nets, has returned to the Mediterranean.

Study will look at oil spill's effect on whales

Jul 02, 2010

(AP) -- Tags, tissue samples and sound are among methods being used on a scientific cruise to study the Gulf of Mexico oil spill's effects on whales and other endangered animals.

Recommended for you

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

8 hours ago

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

10 hours ago

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

10 hours ago

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Modernmystic
not rated yet Mar 14, 2011
Tough...
BillFox
not rated yet Mar 14, 2011
I don't even know what to begin saying to hippies like this. DONT BOTHER THE WHALES, THEIR AFEARED OF SOUNDS.
Eric_B
1.5 / 5 (2) Mar 14, 2011
So, the basic assertion the two of you make is that there should be no consideration of any consequence of any human behavior that acts upon any aspect of organic life and/or the environment of the planet...
Modernmystic
3 / 5 (2) Mar 14, 2011
So, the basic assertion the two of you make is that there should be no consideration of any consequence of any human behavior that acts upon any aspect of organic life and/or the environment of the planet...


No...but in this situation tough.

Is it your assertion that we shouldn't be allowed to do anything if it impacts any other living thing on the planet in any way?

See how STUPID that sounds....

More news stories

Deadly human pathogen Cryptococcus fully sequenced

Within each strand of DNA lies the blueprint for building an organism, along with the keys to its evolution and survival. These genetic instructions can give valuable insight into why pathogens like Cryptococcus ne ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...