Does ocean noise stress-out whales?

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU


We’ve all been stressed. You might be stressed right now. Deadlines, demands, criticism, bills, relationships. It all adds up and can boil over: Chronic stress is linked with poor health, and also increased risk of illness (like cancer; Glaser et al. 2005, Godbout and Glaser 2006).

Biologically, stress manifests itself in vertebrate animals as variable levels of hormones, particularly the hormone cortisol. This academic term I am taking a class at OSU called “vertebrate endocrinology” where I am learning the different types of secretions and organs involved and the mechanisms of hormone action: how secretion, transport and signaling happen. These issues are important for my research because I will be examining stress levels in gray whales.

It may seem strange to study how stressed out a whale is, but there are reasons to believe that the long-term health of animals, including whales, is significantly related to their stress-hormone levels (Jepson et al. 2003, Cox et al. 2006, Wright et al. 2007, Rolland et al. 2012).

So what could be stressing out whales? Probably lots of things including food availability, predators and mating. However, we are mostly interested in describing how much added stress human activities in the oceans are causing, particularly from increased ocean noise. Ambient ocean noise levels have increased considerably over the last decades: according to IUCN, the increase was about 3 dB per decade over the past 60 years and now it seems to be increasing from 3 to 5 dB per decade (Simard and Spadone 2012).

Baleen whales communicate through low-frequency signals, reaching between 20 and 200 Hz and large ships generate noise in the same frequency band, which can mask whale vocalizations and potentially add stress (Rolland et al. 2012), especially in areas with high anthropogenic activities such as big ports, where an intense traffic occurs.

To get a sense of how noisy oceans can disrupt the acoustic lives of whales, the Monterey Institute has created an excellent interactive website where it is possible to listen to the whales’ vocalization and add other sources of sounds, like ship traffic, to compare the difference in noise levels.

We still do not understand the population level consequences of this increased ocean noise on whales, however it has been demonstrated that whales respond behaviorally to increased noise, including changes in vocalization rates and habitat displacement (Morton and Symonds 2002, Nowacek et al. 2007, Weilgart 2007, Rolland et al. 2012). In order to understand how acoustic disturbance may influence marine mammal populations, the population consequences of acoustic disturbance model (PCAD) was developed by the US National Academies of Sciences (National Resource Council 2005; We believe that examining stress levels in whales can provide a useful link between ocean noise and population-level impacts.

One previous study convincingly demonstrated the impacts of ocean noise on whale stress hormones due to the chance experiment caused by the shut-down of all air and vessel traffic during the days following September 11, 2001. Rolland et al. (2012) collected acoustic samples from the Bay of Fundy, Canada, and fecal samples from north Atlantic right whales in the area before and after September 11th over five years. The results found a 6 dB decrease in ocean noise (Figure 1) in the area after this date and an associated decrease in glucocorticoids (GC) metabolite (stress) levels in the whales (Figure 2 – highlighted in red).

Spectrum of the noise in different days along the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Source: Rolland et al. (2012)
Figure 1: Spectrum of the noise in different days along the Bay of Fundy, Canada.
Source: Rolland et al. (2012)


Figure 2
Figure 2: (a) Levels of fecal glucocorticoids metabolites (ng g -1) in North Atlantic right whales before (gray) and after (white) 11 September; (b) Yearly difference in median fecal GC levels. Source: Rolland et al. (2012)


For my PhD research we are attempting to assess how multiple, confounding factors contribute to stress levels in individual whales: prey availability, body condition, location, ocean noise, sex and sexual maturity. My advisor, Dr. Leigh Torres, developed a conceptual pathway diagram that illustrates potential scenarios caused by dichotomous levels of three major ecological components and their hypothesized influence on whale stress levels (Figure 3).


Figure 3
Figure 3: Conceptual pathway diagram of the hypothesized stress response of whales based on high or low levels of the three contributing ecological factors on stress that will be measured (developed by L. Torres).


From this diagram we can generate different hypotheses for our research to test. Distinct levels (high or low) of noise, prey availability, and health condition can lead to varied responses in the amplitude and duration of stress. We will measure prey availability through GoPro camera drops, hormone levels through fecal sample collection, and body condition through photogrammetry measurements of aerial images captured through an Unmanned Aerial System (aka drone).

Watch a video clip filmed via a UAS of a gray whale defecation event, and the field team collecting the sample for analysis.

Our study species is the gray whale, a non endangered species that regularly visits the Oregon coast during summer and fall months to feed, allowing accessibility to whales and repeatability of sighting individual animals. This ability to resight individual whales within and between years is important so that we can evaluate natural stress variability, thus allowing us to identify ‘stressful events’ and potential causes.

Overall, the main aim of my PhD research is to better understand how gray whale hormone levels vary across individual, time, body condition, location, and ambient noise environments. We may then be able to scale-up our results to better understand the population level impacts of elevated ocean noise on reproduction, distribution and abundance of whales.

We plan to study the correlation between stress levels in whales and ocean noise over many years to compile a robust database that allows us to identify how animals may be impacted physiologically at short- and long- term scales. These results will inform environmental management decisions regarding thresholds of ambient ocean noise levels in order to limit harm posed to baleen whales.


Bibliographic References:

Cox T, Ragen T, Read A, Vos E, Baird R, Balcomb K, Barlow J, Caldwell J, Cranford T, Crum L, D’Amico A, D’Spain G, Fernandez A, Finneran J, Gentry R, Gerth W, Gulland F, Hildebrand J, Houser D, Hullar T, Jepson P, Ketten D, MacLeod C, Miller P, Moore S, Mountain D, Palka D, Rommel S, Rowles T, Taylor B, Tyack P, Wartzok D, Gisiner R, Mead J, Benner L. 2006. Understanding the impacts of anthropogenic sound on beaked whales. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 7:177-187.

Glaser R, Padgett DA, Litsky ML, Baiocchi RA, Yang EV, Chen M, Yeh PE, Klimas NG, Marshall GD, Whiteside T, Herberman R, Kiecolt-Glaser J, Williams MV (2005) Stress-associated changes in the steady-state expression of latent Epstein-Barr virus: implications for chronic fatigue syndrome and cancer. Brain Behav. Immun. 19(2):91-103.

Godbout JP, Glaser R. 2006. Stress-Induced Immune Dysregulation: Implications for Wound Healing, Infectious Disease and Cancer. J. Neuroimmune Pharm. 1:421-427.

Simard F, Spadone A (eds). 2012. An Ecosystem Approach to Management of Seamounts in the Southern Indian Ocean. Volume 2 – Anthropogenic Threats to Seamount Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 64pp.

Jepson PD, Arbelot M, Deaville R, Patterson IAP, Castro P, Baker JR, Degollada E, Ross HM, Herraez P, Pocknell AM, Rodriguez F, Howie II FE, Espinosa A, Reid RJ, Jaber JR, Martin V, Cunningham AA, Fernandez A. 2003. Gas-bubble lesions in stranded cetaceans: Was sonar responsible for a spate of whale deaths after an Atlantic military exercise? Nature 425:575-576.

Morton AB, Symonds HK. 2002. Displacement of Orcinus orca (L.) by high amplitude sound in British Columbia, Canada. ICES Journal of Marine Science 59:71-80.

National Resource Council. 2005. Marine Mammal Populations and Ocean Noise: Determining When Noise Causes Biologically Significant Effects. National Academies Press, Washington D.C.

Nowacek DP, Thorne LH, Johnston DW, Tyack PL. 2007. Responses of cetaceans to anthropogenic noise. Mammal Rev. 37, 81–115.

Rolland RM, Parks SE, Hunt KE, Castellote M, Corkeron PJ, Nowacek DP, Wasser SK, Kraus SD. 2012. Evidence that ship noise increases stress in righ whales. Proc. R. Soc. B 279:2363-2368.

Weilgart LS. 2007 The impacts of anthropogenic ocean noise on cetaceans and implications for management. Can. J. Zool. 85, 1091–1116.

Wright AJ, Soto NA, Baldwin AL, Bateson M, Beale CM, Clark C, Deak T, Edwards EF, Fernández A, Godinho A. 2007. Do Marine Mammals Experience Stress Related to Anthropogenic Noise? International Journal of Comparative Psychology 20.


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