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Decadal-scale frequency shift of migrating bowhead whale calls in the shallow Beaufort Sea

automated bowhead whale detections
TitleDecadal-scale frequency shift of migrating bowhead whale calls in the shallow Beaufort Sea
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsThode A.M, Blackwell S.B, Conrad A.S, Kim K.H, Macrander A.M
JournalJournal of the Acoustical Society of America
Date Published2017/09
Type of ArticleArticle
ISBN Number0001-4966
Accession NumberWOS:000412100700043
KeywordsAlaska; ambient noise; balaena-mysticetus; behavior; communication; greenland; humpback whales; localization; songs; sound production

Automated and manual acoustic localizations of bowhead whale calls in the Beaufort Sea were used to estimate the minimum frequency attained by their highly variable FM-modulated call repertoire during seven westerly fall migrations. Analyses of 13 355 manual and 100 009 automated call localizations found that between 2008 and 2014 the proportion of calls that dipped below 75 Hz increased from 27% to 41%, shifting the mean value of the minimum frequency distribution from 94 to 84 Hz. Multivariate regression analyses using both generalized linear models and generalized estimating equations found that this frequency shift persisted even when accounting for ten other factors, including calling depth, call range, call type, noise level, signal-to-noise ratio, local water depth (site), airgun activity, and call spatial density. No single call type was responsible for the observed shift, but so-called "complex" calls experienced larger percentage downward shifts. By contrast, the call source level distribution remained stable over the same period. The observed frequency shift also could not be explained by migration corridor shifts, relative changes in call detectability between different frequency bands, long-term degradation in the automated airgun detector, physiological growth in the population, or behavioral responses to increasing population density (estimated via call density). (C) 2017 Acoustical Society of America.


...every statistical model found a significant regression coefficient between Year and fmin. Over 7 years, the shift in predicted mean value matched the mean shift visible in Fig. 5 and exceeded the confidence bounds assigned to the prediction curve . The 7-season shift retained roughly the same direction and magnitude—a decrease of about 10 Hz over 7 years—regardless of the model used, the dataset applied, or the number of predictive factors included.

Before discussing potential behavioral or physiological explanations for these observed long-term frequency shifts, we first examine three potential non-biological explanations for this evolution: long-term changes in propagation factors (including the location of the migration corridor), long-term shifts in relative ambient noise levels, and increasing misclassification of airgun signals as whale calls. We then examine specific biological explanations, including a population-wide shift in the relative use of call types, the addition of a new call type, physiological growth in the population, and finally, a behavioral response to increasing call spatial densities.

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