An animal-borne active acoustic tag for minimally invasive behavioral response studies on marine mammals
© Fregosi et al. 2016
Received: 30 October 2015
Accepted: 11 March 2016
Published: 1 April 2016
There is a variety of evidence that increased anthropogenic noise (e.g., shipping, explosions, sonar) has a measureable effect on marine mammal species. Observed impacts range in severity from brief interruptions of basic life functions to physiological changes, acute injury, and even death. New research tools are needed to better measure and understand the potential effects of anthropogenic noise on marine mammals. Current behavioral response studies typically utilize ship-based sound sources to study potential acute behavioral responses in tagged animals experimentally exposed to noise. Integrating the sound source within animal-mounted passive acoustic and motion-sensing tags provides a novel tool for conducting additional highly controlled response studies.
We developed and conducted pilot field trials of a prototype tag on five juvenile northern elephant seals, Mirounga angustirostris, using experimental exposures to both natural and anthropogenic noise stimuli. Results indicate behavioral responses were elicited in tagged individuals. However, no pattern was found in the occurrence and types of response compared to stimulus type. Responses during the ascending dive phase consisted of a dive inversion, or sustained reversal from ascending to descending (8 of 9 exposures). Dive inversions following exposure were 4–11 times larger than non-exposure inversions. Exposures received during the descending dive phase resulted in increased descent rates in 9 of 10 exposures. All 8 exposures during dives in which maximum dive depth was limited by bathymetry were characterized by increased flow noise in the audio recordings following exposure, indicating increased swim speed.
Results of this study demonstrate the ability of an animal-mounted sound source to elicit behavioral responses in free-ranging individuals. Behavioral responses varied by seal, dive state at time of exposure, and bathymetry, but followed an overall trend of diving deeper and steeper and swimming faster. Responses did not consistently differ based on stimulus type, which may be attributable to the unique exposure context of the very close proximity of the sound source. Further technological development and focused field efforts are needed to advance and apply these tools and methods in subsequent behavioral response studies to address specific questions.
KeywordsAcoustic Tag Behavioral response Northern elephant seal Controlled exposure experiment
Marine mammals rely on acoustic cues for many life functions including navigation, foraging, communication, and predator avoidance . Anthropogenic activities have contributed to increased ocean ambient noise levels in certain areas [2, 3]. The potential adverse effects of both acute and chronic human-generated noise on marine mammals are a major conservation concern [e.g., 4–14]. Naval sonar activities have been linked to cetacean stranding events, where necropsies have shown physical damage to vital organs [5, 6]. Noise has also been shown to increase stress hormone levels , reduce foraging activity [8, 15], alter migration routes , mask communication sounds , and displace marine mammals from primary feeding and breeding grounds [11, 12, 15]. Understanding the differential responses of marine mammals to noise stimuli is necessary for managing human impacts in the ocean [17, 18].
Behavioral response studies (BRSs) using a controlled exposure experiment (CEE) paradigm have emerged as an effective tool to study discrete behavioral responses of individual, free-ranging marine mammals to particular sounds [19, 20]. These studies typically use animal-mounted archival motion-sensing (via pressure sensors and triaxial accelerometers and magnetometers) and acoustic recording tags as well as visual observations to measure individual focal animal response to a controlled exposure from a sound source deployed nearby. Measurements of swim speed, dive depth, dive duration, heading, vocal behavior, group spacing, ascent and descent rate, and other metrics are made before, during, and after the CEE in order to assess response [e.g., 21–25].
Combining the sound source with behavioral sensors and an acoustic recorder into a single animal-mounted tag could enable an alternative BRS methodological approach. Such an instrument could offer a more cost-effective tool that would allow for better control of exposure sound levels. While the exposure context is unique in being physically attached to the animal, this context is consistent for all exposures whereas other BRS approaches often have variability in the context of different exposures. Finally, it could enable investigation of the effects of varied sound levels, multiple or sustained exposures, and behavioral habituation.
The northern elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris , presents an ideal study species to test the effectiveness of such a tag. Northern elephant seals are accessible as they haul out twice a year to breed and molt [27, 28]. Elephant seal diving behavior is well studied and found to be highly stereotypic, with almost continuous, repetitive deep diving [28–31]. They regularly reach depths similar to many of the cetacean species thought to be most affected by anthropogenic noise (i.e., beaked whales; [28, 32]) and dive as deep as or deeper than the deep sound channel (~1000 m). Previous studies have shown that carrying relatively large instruments does not inhibit the ability of juvenile seals to swim or forage, and instrument recovery rate is above 90 % [28, 33, 34]. Additionally, northern elephant seals have acute underwater hearing sensitivity with relatively low hearing thresholds occurring over a very broad frequency range [35, 36]. High-resolution behavioral responses to sound stimuli from our device can be collected for elephant seals using sensors that measure changes in pressure, acceleration, strength of magnetic field, and turn rate [13, 37].
Here we describe a pilot study testing an animal-mounted active acoustic and motion-sensing tag on free-ranging juvenile northern elephant seals. The main goals of this study were (1) to test whether an animal-borne acoustic tag elicits any behavioral response and if so (2) to determine whether responses are related to stimulus content. Development and application of an active acoustic tag in a behavioral response paradigm could answer targeted questions regarding the nature and magnitude of responses of marine mammals to anthropogenic noise and their potential physiological consequences, leading to better informed evaluation of human-generated sound.
Calibrated source levels for exposure stimuli
125.56 (0.94) @ 1 m (dBRMS re 1 µPa)
Common dolphin whistles
130.66 (1.48) @ 1 m (dBRMS re 1 µPa)
Sperm whale clicksa
131.77 (1.89) @ 1 m (dB0-peak re 1 µPa)
Killer whale whistles
121.06 (4.60) @ 1 m (dBRMS re 1 µPa)
Killer whale clicksb
Estimated 126 @ 1 m (dB0-peak re 1 µPa)
124.27 (0.58) @ 1 m (dBRMS re 1 µPa)
A DSG acoustic recorder (Loggerhead Instruments, Inc, Sarasota, FL, USA) connected to an HTI-96-MIN hydrophone (High Tech, Inc, Long Beach, MS, USA; sensitivity −190.5 dB re 1 V µPa−1; frequency response 2 Hz–30 kHz) recorded for 30 min starting 15 min prior to each scheduled playback. This provided a recorded confirmation that a single playback occurred and allowed detection of other environmental noise events occurring at the time of the playback. Recordings were sampled at 32 kHz (16 bit resolution) with 20 dB of gain. The passive acoustic system was powered by a second 3.7 V, 3000 mAh lithium-ion polymer battery (Tenergy, Fremont, CA, USA).
All tag components were placed in an oil-filled Delrin® housing, rated to 1500 m depth. Clear, food-grade mineral oil was used as a non-compressible and non-conductive filler so no air remained in the housing and to limit acoustic impedance between the tag and seawater. The tag package weighed approximately 1.5 kg (<1.2 % total body mass of smallest seal) and was slightly negatively buoyant. The original tag design was modified following the first three deployments. Changes in pressure and temperature between the surface and at depth caused changes in mineral oil density. The slight flexibility of Delrin® caused a pumping action to develop that moved seawater past the o-ring seals into the oil-filled tag body. Larger o-rings were used, and flexible tubing with small air pockets was attached to the outside of the housing to allow minor changes in mineral oil density and limit seawater intrusion.
Summary dive statistics for all study individuals
Body mass (kg)
Deployment duration (h)
Number of dives recorded
Number of dives deeper than 100 m (% of total)
Mean dive depth (m)
Mean dive duration (s)
Median dive duration (s)
Dives deeper than 100 m
Dives deeper than 100 m
Dives deeper than 100 m
509 (52.4 %)
20 (5.0 %)
124 (23.9 %)
28 (18.9 %)
115 (35.8 %)
Playbacks occurred every 6 h for the first two seals and every 3 h for the remaining seals. Each playback consisted of one exposure to a single stimulus. The order of stimuli presentation varied between seals, but remained the same within an individual seal, unless the tag reset itself, at which point it started back at the beginning of the sequence.
Deployment duration and number of exposures for the successful deployments of the prototype tag
Exposure interval (h)
Number of exposures received
Exposures by dive stage
We hypothesized that responses would differ according to dive type and state, so different dives and exposures were analyzed separately. Dive shapes were used to identify different dive types (e.g., transit vs. foraging ). Dives were grouped into deep (>100 m) and shallow (≤100 m) dives (Table 3). Exposures were categorized by dive phase (descent, ascent, bottom phase, and surface; Table 3). Descents were defined as the segment from 0 m to the point at which the seal descended at a rate <0.1 m s−1 for 20 s. The beginning of an ascent was defined as the point at which an individual ascended for more than 4 m over 20 s (an ascent rate of 0.2 m s−1). Bottom phases were defined as the segment between the descending and ascending segments. Exposures that occurred at depths shallower than 20 m were labeled as “surface” and excluded from all analyses due to increased ambient noise levels, and thus a decreased signal-to-noise ratio of the low-level stimulus, near the water’s surface.
Descent rates for descending phases of deep dives were measured and compared to identify possible responses during descents. Average descent rate over 60 s before and 60 s after exposure onset were calculated. A time window of 60 s was selected in order to differentiate sustained changes in descent rate from brief startle responses during the playback only. Because an increase in descent rate is considered a subtle response that likely happens regularly in non-exposure dives, statistical analysis of changes in descent rate was not performed.
Shallow dives occurred along the shelf edge and were limited by the seafloor so diving deeper or reversing an ascent was not possible. To identify possible responses for these shallow dives, changes in flow noise on the passive acoustic recorder (a proxy for changes in swim speed) were measured and compared. Previous studies have found an 18- to 20-dB increase at very low frequencies (8–18 Hz) corresponds to a doubling of current flow, regardless of tag or hydrophone design [34, 41]. Average RMS in the 8–18 Hz frequency band was measured for 30–60 and 0–30 s before exposure and 0–30 and 30–60 s after the exposure ended (Adobe Audition CC, Adobe Systems Incorporated, San Jose, CA, USA). The before and after periods were divided to detect shorter-term changes in swim speed, but the entire 60-s period was taken into account when assessing a response.
The normalized change in depth for exposure and non-exposure dive inversions for seal G6651 was plotted against time to investigate possible habituation to multiple playbacks over the duration of the deployment. To investigate differential response of all seals to different stimuli, each playback was categorized as either “response” or “no response,” using a minimum level of response based on percent change, which varied for each dive state (ascending, bottom, descending, or shallow/bottom-limited). Ascending or bottom-phase playbacks were categorized as “response” if there was a dive inversion magnitude >2 SDs from non-playback inversions. Descending playbacks were considered a response if descent rate increased by >50 % following exposure, and for shallow dives, an increase in flow noise of >10 % was considered a response. Percent of overall response was calculated.
Seven deployments of the prototype tag resulted in successful CEEs for five individuals (Table 2). Received levels at the individuals’ ears, estimated from the source level and assuming spherical spreading, ranged from 128 to 138 dB re 1 µPa, depending on seal and stimulus type. Mechanical (flooding) or electrical (tag control board reset) tag failure rendered the remaining two unsuccessful. The playback control of the tag would occasionally experience a reset for undetermined reasons, resulting in a stimulus that was played out of sequence. In some cases, this reset caused the tag to stop working entirely.
Deployments and basic dive behavior
Five successful deployments ranged from 30 to 207 h in duration. Animals received 2–24 playbacks, each a single 30-s exposure, at an interval of 3 or 6 h, and non-exposure dives served as control dives (Table 3; Fig. 2). Four of five animals dove along the seafloor (depths up to ~100 m) until reaching the continental shelf edge, after which they exhibited deeper, pelagic transit dives with mean depths of 217–340 m over the deep water of Monterey Canyon. They returned to the shallow dive pattern when returning to shallow coastal waters near Año Nuevo State Park (Fig. 3). We found no evidence of foraging or drift dives, and the observed dive patterns were similar to those of other translocated juveniles [13, 42]. Dive depths <100 m were likely limited by the seafloor, while deeper dives were not bottom-limited, which may have an effect on responses measured (Fig. 3) . One individual (G5520) rarely dove deeper than 100 m (5.0 % of all dives), even over deep water (Fig. 3). We found no significant difference in magnitude of non-exposure dive inversions for seals G5449 and G6651 (ADK, p = 0.14, n = 283 non-exposure inversions, seal G5449 and n = 30 non-exposure inversions, seal G6651). Both exposures to seal G6009 were received at <10 m depth, so they were excluded from further analyses. After this exclusion, there were 28 usable exposures on four seals, made up of 9 ascending, 10 descending, 1 bottom phase, and 8 shallow water exposures.
Controlled exposure experiment
Mean change in depth for non-exposure and exposure dive inversions
Mean change in depth for non-exposure inversions (m)
Mean change in depth for exposure inversions (m)
Anderson–Darling k-sample test
n = 283
n = 1
n = 8
n = 1
n = 30
n = 7
p = <0.001
Flow noise (swim speed) increased by 10.0 (±8.0) dB re 1 µPa from 0 to 30 s before exposure to 30–60 s after exposure (30.3 ± 14.7 % increase) in all 8 exposures (to three seals) that occurred in shallow water (<100 m). For two of the exposures, flow noise initially decreased in the 0–30 s immediately after exposure but by 60 s after, reached above pre-exposure levels.
We identify behavioral responses in juvenile northern elephant seals elicited by an animal-mounted sound source. This is the first dedicated BRS conducted on any marine mammal using an animal-borne sound source (see  for incidental BRS with an active sonar tag). This approach has the potential to expand and complement current CEE methodologies. Such data will provide enhanced understanding of longer-term effects of anthropogenic noise.
Deployments that resulted in unsuccessful or reduced duration CEEs were due to issues with either the SBC or the housing. We were unable to resolve the cause of the SBC reset, but believe it was caused by the formation of a ground loop due to differential ground potentials of the independent hardware components comprising the single tag system. Although the housing was rated to 1500 m depth, either changes in temperature and pressure with depth or incorrectly sized o-rings likely caused failure of the slightly flexible Delrin® housing, allowing seawater to enter the housing and short circuit the electronics. Future tags would benefit greatly from being potted in solid resin; however, the non-permanent setup used in this trial allowed us to monitor and modify physical tag components and programming as needed during the field effort. Additionally, we found no evidence of instrumentation or drag affecting normal swimming behavior, as dive profiles were similar to those of other translocated seals carrying smaller devices [13, 42, 45].
Animal response to disturbance
Behavioral responses measured during CEEs varied with dive state at the time of exposure. Most responses involved seals diving deeper and/or longer after exposure. The clearest responses (Fig. 4; Table 4) involved dive inversions (reversal of an ascent) followed by the seal diving deeper than the initial maximum dive depth. These extended dive inversions served as strong indicators of response. Quantitatively, dive inversions resulted in greater depths and longer dive durations, when compared to smaller-scale dive variations seen naturally in these and other translocated seals carrying a depth sensor [13, 46]. The exposure context here is unique in terms of the extreme proximity of the sound source to the animal, and the extrapolation of results to longer-range exposures should thus be considered cautiously. However, this context is more constant than in previous studies providing a stronger basis for the comparison of responses within an individual across exposure conditions.
Responses observed are similar to hypothesized elephant seal behavior to escape predators by diving deeper , and responses to anthropogenic sound sources are not unexpected [13, 44]. Responses elicited during CEEs were similar to those found by other BRSs on deep-diving marine mammals. For instance, dive inversions and remaining at depth longer were demonstrated in two species of beaked whale exposed to simulated mid-frequency sonar from an external, ship-mounted sound source [22, 47]. A third species of beaked whale responded to exposures of both sonar and killer whale sounds by interrupting foraging and performing an unusually long and shallow ascent .
Responses to exposures that occurred during descents or during bottom-limited dives were more difficult to measure. Natural variation in swim speed and descent angle limited our ability to define statistical significance for observed responses. In future studies, initiating exposure during one dive phase would control experimental variability and allow robust statistical analyses of responses.
We suspect the tag reset described above, and the resulting stimulus playback, is the most likely explanation for three non-exposure dive inversions of similar magnitude to inversions following exposures observed in seal G6651 (Fig. 5). The inversions could have occurred naturally (e.g., exposure to an external alarming sound) or from an accidental exposure by the prototype tag following a reset; however, the independent passive acoustic system was not recording so we cannot know for sure. Continuous recording of ambient noise on future tag iterations, and longer-duration deployments, would allow for potential opportunistic measurement of behavioral responses to naturally occurring threatening sounds such as predators, boats, or other man-made or tag-made sounds.
Differential response by stimulus type
Differences in response rate by exposure type and for all exposures to all seals
Number of exposures
Common dolphin whistles
Sperm whale clicks
Killer whale whistles
Killer whale click
The observed results suggest that the response may be a result of acoustic limitations of the playback apparatus rather than the stimuli (see ). Limitations included the nonlinear nature of the small transducers and extreme proximity of the source to the animal. This proximity likely created an unusual perceptual context compared to a sound produced naturally at realistic ranges due to the effects of sound propagation (e.g., reverberation, directional cues, and the relative presence or absence of harmonics). Many details of pinniped underwater hearing, including directionality, are still poorly understood [36, 49, 50]. Sudden sounds may trigger a response, regardless of the sound type or the distance it is perceived to be coming from. Future testing using playback stimuli that are filtered to simulate different source locations could examine the effects of reverberation and localization in detail. Comparable parallel CEEs would need to be conducted on pinnipeds, using an external sound source that closely approximate actual signals, to fully evaluate the potential of this tag for BRS.
While individual differences could also contribute to different responses, no single seal received multiple exposures of all exposure types because of tag failures, which precludes further examination of this possibility. BRS exposing animals to multiple exposures of all stimuli are needed to investigate individual differences to stimuli. A differential response to dolphin whistles was recorded for seal G6651, the only seal exposed to two playbacks of dolphin whistles while ascending from a dive. No extreme dive inversions were recorded for dolphin whistles, while other stimuli resulted in extreme evasive behavior. This anecdotal example provides evidence for the possibility of differential response to different stimuli.
Repeated exposures to various stimuli may cause habituation over time . Although there was no evidence of habituation over short-term deployments (<3 days), we cannot rule out the possibility of a sensitization response. The consistent response to most exposures independent of stimulus type and the apparent lack of reduction in response within individuals suggest either that seals are generally sensitive to a relatively wide range of audible exposures or possibly that seals became sensitized to subsequent exposure. Preliminary evidence from captive elephant seals suggests some sensitization, as opposed to habituation, upon repeated exposure to certain acoustic stimuli . However, the sound source placement, context, and limited number of exposures of each stimulus type to each individual limited our ability to test for potential sensitization.
The tag and method may be useful in physiological studies of dive limits and studies of hearing ranges. The tag could be used as a mobile, programmable sound source to study frequency-dependent hearing in marine mammal species that cannot be studied using captive psychophysical methods. Little is known about hearing in many marine mammals because laboratory studies of hearing are not feasible due to constraints with keeping very large, migratory, deep-diving, and social species in captivity, but using controlled, incrementally increasing exposure levels of tonal sounds that trigger drastic changes in behavior could investigate differences in hearing sensitivities in previously inaccessible species.
Additionally, this tag could be used to study the physiological effects of unanticipated extensions of dives, another important research need for understanding the effects of noise on marine mammals . We are beginning to better understand how animals behaviorally respond to sound, but we still do not fully understand the underlying physiological changes that are linked to these behavioral changes (e.g., oxidative stress). Physiological parameters such as oxygen utilization, heart rate, and post-dive recovery times can be monitored in free-ranging animals [53, 54], and with this tag, dives can be experimentally extended, allowing quantitative investigation of physiological responses. To support the potential use of this tag to study physiological effects of extended dives possibly related to responses to anthropogenic noise, it is promising that the responses were similar to other deep-diving species of interest. For species that are specialized for oxygen efficiency during prolonged, deep dives, physiological responses to changes in planned dive duration could help physiologists better understand these adaptations .
This pilot study was the first of its kind to investigate the potential use of an animal-borne sound source to conduct BRS on marine mammals to further investigate the effects of anthropogenic noise. Five juvenile northern elephant seals were instrumented and translocated south of their colony at Año Nuevo State Park. They received playbacks of multiple stimulus types (both man-made and natural) from the tag while diving continuously on their return to the colony. Dive behavior before and after exposures were compared to assess whether animal-borne tags holding sound sources were capable of eliciting a response from a free-ranging animal and whether potential responses differed with stimulus content.
Projecting sound from a tag mounted to the back of a free-ranging juvenile northern elephant seal did elicit behavioral responses; however, the responses were not consistently different with different stimulus types. Responses varied by seal, by dive state, and by the bathymetry where the exposure occurred, but in general, seals dove deeper following playback. Animals responded to 82 % of exposures overall, with no clear evidence of a reduction in response to repeated exposures of various stimuli. The unique and biologically unrealistic context of a sudden sound exposure coming from directly behind the animal is likely the greatest limiting factor preventing use of this tag in examining differential responses to particular sounds and relating them to responses that may occur over more realistic source-animal ranges. Making conclusions about the effects of particular sounds on juvenile northern elephant seals was beyond the scope of this pilot study, but additional tests using this technology may help develop additional questions and hypotheses in the future.
Tag improvements and additional field testing could strengthen results found here, but the concept of an animal-borne sound source for triggering behavioral responses has been validated. The use of this novel animal-borne sound source in future studies could help increase the ability to measure and evaluate the type and probability of response for various sound exposures within a constant context, connecting vital rates to long-term health effects, evaluating potential habituation or sensitization from repeated exposures, and even evaluating basic aspects of hearing (e.g., frequency ranges) for marine mammals previously unstudied. Each of these would represent important steps in better understanding the effects of anthropogenic noise on marine mammals.
behavioral response study
controlled exposure experiment
Endangered Species Act
Marine Mammal Protection Act
National Geophysical Data Center
National Marine Fisheries Service
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association
National Research Council
single board controller
SF and HK were involved in securing funding, tag development, field work, analysis, and drafting the manuscript. MH provided field, analysis, and writing support. DPC provided field assistance and permitting. DM provided tag development and analysis support. KS participated in tag development and field efforts. LAH provided field and data analysis support. DKM helped secure funding and participated in tag development. BLS provided analysis, theory, and writing support. All authors read, edited, and approved the final manuscript.
We thank the students and volunteers of the Costa Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for their assistance in the field, as well as Año Nuevo State Park and Barbara Block (Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University). We thank Sharon Nieukirk, who provided insightful comments on the manuscript. We also thank the two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and constructive feedback. Field work was conducted under NMFS Permit #87-1743 and approved under the University of California, Santa Cruz, IACUC AUP #COSTD1409_A16. This is PMEL Manuscript #4401. Field work and analysis were funded by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Science and Technology, Ocean Acoustics Program grant, the Oregon State University Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies, and the Oregon State University Provost’s Graduate Fellowship. Field work was further supported by the Office of Naval Research (Grant N00014-10-1-0356 to DPC).
The authors maintain no competing financial interests for this study.
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