Milling around in definitions

Clara Bird, Masters Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

A big part of graduate school involves extensive reading to learn about the previous research conducted in the field you are joining and the embedded foundational theories. A firm understanding of this background literature is needed in order to establish where your research fits. Science is a constructive process; to advance our disciplines we must recognize and build upon previous work. Hence, I’ve been reading up on the central topic of my thesis: behavioral ecology. It is equally important to study the methods used in these studies as to understand the findings. As discussed in a previous blog, ethograms are a central component of the methodology for studying behavior. Ethograms are lists of defined behaviors that help us properly and consistently collect data in a standardized approach. It is especially important in a project that spans years to know that the data collected at the beginning was collected in the same way as the data collected at the end of the project.

While ethograms and standardized methods are commonly used within a study, I’ve noticed from reading through studies on cetaceans, a lack of standardization across studies. Not all behaviors that are named the same way have matching definitions, and not all behaviors with similar definitions have matching names. Of all the behaviors, “milling” may be the least standardized.

While milling is not in our ethogram (Leigh believes this term is a “cheat” for when behavior is actually “unknown”), we occasionally use “milling” in the field to describe when the gray whales are swimming around in an area, not foraging, but not in any other primary behavior state (travel, social, or rest). Sometimes we use when we think the whale may be searching, but we aren’t 100% sure yet. A recent conversation during a lab meeting on the confusing nature of the term “milling” inspired me to dig into the literature for this blog. I searched through the papers I’ve saved for my literature review and found 18 papers that used the term milling. It was fascinating to read how variably the term has been defined and used.

When milling was defined in these papers, it was most commonly described as numerous directional changes in movement within a restricted area 1–8. Milling often co-occurred with other behavior states. Five of these eight studies described milling as co-occurring with foraging behavior 3–6,8. In one case, milling was associated with foraging and slow movement 8. While another study described milling as passive, slow, nondirectional movement 9.

Eight studies used the term milling without defining the behavior 10–17. Of these, five described milling as being associated with other behavior states. Three studies described milling as co-occurring with foraging 10,14,16, one said that it co-occurred with social behavior 13, and another described milling as being associated with resting/slow movement 12.

In addition to this variety of definitions and behavior associations, there were also inconsistencies with the placement of “milling” within ethograms. In nine studies, milling was listed as a primary state 1,2,4,7–9,15,17,18. But, in two studies that mentioned milling and used an ethogram, milling was not included in the ethogram 6,14.

Diving into the associations between milling and foraging reveal how varied the use of milling has been within the cetacean literature. For example, two studies simply described milling as occurring near foraging in time 10,16. While another two studies explained that milling was applied in situations where there was evidence of feeding without feeding being directly observed 8,14. Bobkov et al. (2019) described milling as occurring between feeding cycles along with breathing. Lastly, two studies describe milling as a behavior within the foraging primary state 3,5, while another study described feeding as a behavior within milling 4.

It’s all rather confusing, huh? Across these studies, milling has been defined, mentioned without being defined, included in ethograms as a primary state, included in ethograms as a sub-behavior, and excluded from ethograms. Milling has also been associated with multiple primary behavior states (foraging, resting, and socializing). It has been described as both passive 9 and slow 12, and strong 16 and active 5.

It appears that milling is often used to describe behaviors that the observer cannot distinctly classify or describe its function. I have also struggled to define these times when a whale is in between behavior states; I often end up calling it “just being a whale”, which includes time spent breathing at the surface, or just swimming around.

As I’ve said above, Leigh thinks that this term is a “cheat” for when a behavior is actually “unknown”. I think we have trouble equating “milling” with “unknown” because it seems like “unknown” should refer to a behavior where we can’t quite tell what the whale is doing. However, during milling, we can see that the whale is swimming at the surface. But here’s the thing, while we can see what the whale is doing, the function of the behavior is still unknown. Instead of using an indistinct term, we should use a term that better describes the behavior.  If it’s swimming at the surface, name the behavior “swimming at the surface”. If we can’t tell what the whale is doing because we can’t quite see what it’s doing, then name the behavior “unknown-partially visible”. Instead of using vague terminology, we should use clear names for behaviors and embrace using the term “unknown”.

I am most certainly not criticizing these studies as they all provided valuable contributions and interesting results. The studies that asked questions about behavioral ecology defined milling. The term was mentioned without being defined in studies focused on other topics. So, defining behaviors mentioned was less important.

With this exploration into the use of “milling” in studies, I am not implying that all behavioral ecologists need to agree on the use of the same behavior terms. However, I have learned clear definitions are critical. This lesson is also important outside of behavioral ecology. Different labs, and different people, use different terms for the same things. As I dig into my thesis, I am keeping a list of terminology I use and how I define those terms, because as I learn more, my terminology evolves and changes. For example, at the beginning of my thesis I used “sub-behavior” to refer to behaviors within the primary state categories. But, now after chatting with Leigh and learning more, I’ve decided to use the term “tactic” instead as these are often processes or events that contribute to the broader behavior state. My running list of terminology helps me remember what I meant when I used a certain word, so that when I read my notes from three months ago, I can know what I meant.  Digging into the literature for this blog reminded me of the importance of clearly defining all terminology and never assuming that everyone uses the same term in the same way.

Check out these videos to see some of the behaviors we observe:


1.        Mallonee, J. S. Behaviour of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) summering off the northern California coast, from Patrick’s Point to Crescent City. Can. J. Zool. 69, 681–690 (1991).

2.        Clarke, J. T., Moore, S. E. & Ljungblad, D. K. Observations on gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) utilization patterns in the northeastern Chukchi Sea. Can. J. Zool 67, (1988).

3.        Ingram, S. N., Walshe, L., Johnston, D. & Rogan, E. Habitat partitioning and the influence of benthic topography and oceanography on the distribution of fin and minke whales in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. J. Mar. Biol. Assoc. United Kingdom 87, 149–156 (2007).

4.        Lomac-MacNair, K. & Smultea, M. A. Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) Behavior and Group Dynamics as Observed from an Aircraft off Southern California. Anim. Behav. Cogn. 3, 1–21 (2016).

5.        Lusseau, D., Bain, D. E., Williams, R. & Smith, J. C. Vessel traffic disrupts the foraging behavior of southern resident killer whales Orcinus orca. Endanger. Species Res. 6, 211–221 (2009).

6.        Bobkov, A. V., Vladimirov, V. A. & Vertyankin, V. V. Some features of the bottom activity of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) off the northeastern coast of Sakhalin Island. 1, 46–58 (2019).

7.        Howe, M. et al. Beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, ethogram: A tool for cook inlet beluga conservation? Mar. Fish. Rev. 77, 32–40 (2015).

8.        Clarke, J. T., Christman, C. L., Brower, A. A. & Ferguson, M. C. Distribution and Relative Abundance of Marine Mammals in the northeastern Chukchi and western Beaufort Seas, 2012. Annu. Report, OCS Study BOEM 117, 96349–98115 (2013).

9.        Barendse, J. & Best, P. B. Shore-based observations of seasonality, movements, and group behavior of southern right whales in a nonnursery area on the South African west coast. Mar. Mammal Sci. 30, 1358–1382 (2014).

10.      Le Boeuf, B. J., M., H. P.-C., R., J. U. & U., B. R. M. and F. O. High gray whale mortality and low recruitment in 1999: Potential causes and implications. (Eschrichtius robustus). J. Cetacean Res. Manag. 2, 85–99 (2000).

11.      Calambokidis, J. et al. Abundance, range and movements of a feeding aggregation of gray whales (Eschrictius robustus) from California to southeastern Alaska in 1998. J. Cetacean Res. Manag. 4, 267–276 (2002).

12.      Harvey, J. T. & Mate, B. R. Dive Characteristics and Movements of Radio-Tagged Gray Whales in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California Sur, Mexico. in The Gray Whale: Eschrichtius Robustus (eds. Jones, M. Lou, Folkens, P. A., Leatherwood, S. & Swartz, S. L.) 561–575 (Academic Press, 1984).

13.      Lagerquist, B. A. et al. Feeding home ranges of pacific coast feeding group gray whales. J. Wildl. Manage. 83, 925–937 (2019).

14.      Barrett-Lennard, L. G., Matkin, C. O., Durban, J. W., Saulitis, E. L. & Ellifrit, D. Predation on gray whales and prolonged feeding on submerged carcasses by transient killer whales at Unimak Island, Alaska. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 421, 229–241 (2011).

15.      Luksenburg, J. A. Prevalence of External Injuries in Small Cetaceans in Aruban Waters, Southern Caribbean. PLoS One 9, e88988 (2014).

16.      Findlay, K. P. et al. Humpback whale “super-groups” – A novel low-latitude feeding behaviour of Southern Hemisphere humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Benguela Upwelling System. PLoS One 12, e0172002 (2017).

17.      Villegas-Amtmann, S., Schwarz, L. K., Gailey, G., Sychenko, O. & Costa, D. P. East or west: The energetic cost of being a gray whale and the consequence of losing energy to disturbance. Endanger. Species Res. 34, 167–183 (2017).

18.      Brower, A. A., Ferguson, M. C., Schonberg, S. V., Jewett, S. C. & Clarke, J. T. Gray whale distribution relative to benthic invertebrate biomass and abundance: Northeastern Chukchi Sea 2009–2012. Deep. Res. Part II Top. Stud. Oceanogr. 144, 156–174 (2017).

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