The following is a listing of research interest areas, or thrusts, for the Office of Naval Research's (ONR's) Marine Mammal Biology (MMB) program.
Monitoring and Detection
ONR's MMB Monitoring and Detection topic goal is to improve marine mammal monitoring capabilities over current methods by developing new and existing technology such as passive acoustics, radar, IR, and others. Recent research efforts on passive acoustics include the development and testing of new autonomous hardware platforms and signal processing algorithms for detection, classification, and localization of marine mammals. Ultimately, our goal is to adapt those algorithms for use on a variety of fixed, towed, floating, and profiling platforms. For example, over the last several years we have adapted the use of autonomous ocean gliders for marine mammal monitoring to create the desired capability of persistent, autonomous, passive acoustic monitoring of an area for marine mammal presence and abundance to provide timely, reliable, accurate and actionable information to support marine mammal mitigation and monitoring. A key goal of ONR sponsored technology development is making the technology available to the broader research and Navy communities.
Integrated Ecosystem Research
ONR's MMB Integrated Ecosystem Research topic seeks to understand the patterns and causes of variability in the distribution and abundance of marine mammals over space and time. This topic often utilizes a multidisciplinary approach using tagging, visual surveys, and passive acoustics to collect baseline measures of marine mammal behaviors and distributions relative to environmental features & prey fields. Recent research efforts have focused on: using animal tagging and passive acoustic monitoring to study behaviors and distributions of marine mammals relative to key environmental properties (biotic and abiotic); providing a context for interpreting behavioral responses to external stimuli (i.e. anthropogenic sound); providing basic knowledge needed for predictive models of species of concern; and mapping prey in relation to physical features and marine mammal distribution.
Sensing and Tag Development
ONR's MMB Program has a long-term interest in both the invention and early stage development of new marine mammal sensing technology with the goal of improving our understanding of the behavior, distribution, and movements of these animals. Recent advancements in sensor technology and the on-going miniaturization of electronic components offer great opportunities to increase our capacity to monitor marine mammals. Additionally, attaching sensors or tags to cetaceans is particularly problematic and continues to be one of the greatest technological challenges hampering research efforts. ONR's MMB Sensor and Tag Development topic seeks to facilitate research through the development of attachment mechanisms covering short, medium, and long-term time durations (See workshop report 2009); development of broad sensor suites into tags; and improving accessibility of sensors, tags, and attachments to the research and Navy communities.
ONR hosted a workshop March 16-17, 2009, to discuss tag design and attachment issues with researchers, tag makers, veterinarians and the permitting agency. Download: Final Workshop Proceedings for the Cetacean Tag Design Workshop
Effects of Sound on Marine Life
The goal of ONR's Effects of Sound on Marine Life topic is to better understand and characterize the behavioral, physiological (hearing and stress response), and potentially population-level consequences of sound exposure on marine life.
Behavioral Response Studies (BRS)
ONR's MMB Program’s goal is to safely study the behavioral responses of marine mammals to naval sources and other anthropogenic sounds. This will allow the community to better understand and characterize the causal chain of events leading from sound exposure to "biologically significant" behavioral reactions that might increase risks of stranding. Recent interdisciplinary research efforts have focused on defining / characterizing behavioral effects of sound exposure on tagged whales and to measure the exposure required to elicit responses that are safe but indicate the potential for risk.
The MMB Program co-sponsors several major BRS-related field programs involving U.S. federal scientists and an international team of academic researchers: Southern California (SOCAL BRS), Norwegian waters (3S Program), and several places in the Mediterranean.
ONR's MMB Program’s goal is a better understanding of the gas management and kinetics (stores and use) in marine mammals. These mechanisms that enable marine mammals to dive to deep depths for long durations while mitigating, if not avoiding, health threats. It has recently been suggested that diving mammals vary their physiological responses according to multiple stressors, which suggests several avenues for further study ranging from the effects of gas bubbles at molecular, cellular and organ function levels to comparative studies relating the presence or absence of gas bubbles to diving behavior. Also, technological advances in imaging and remote instrumentation would potentially benefit the topic area.
Physiological Stress Response
Marine mammals are exposed to a variety of potentially stressful anthropogenic and natural environmental inputs in both wild and captive environments. Little is known about long-term effects of the stress response on individuals and populations in marine mammals. Prolonged exposure to stressors may result in immune system suppression, reproductive failure, accelerated aging, and slowed growth. ONR's MMB program’s goal is to develop an understanding of the natural variation of stress markers; better understand and characterize the relationships among hormones or other biomarkers in different matrices; define and compare the quantitative and temporal relationships of hormones across the different matrices; and evaluate / characterize the relationship between the physiological stress response in marine mammals and acoustic exposure and ‘biologically significant’ disturbance.
ONR hosted a workshop on Nov. 4-5, 2009 in Arlington, Va., with a report titled "Effects of Stress on Marine Mammals Exposed to Sound". The purpose of this workshop was to assemble a cross-section of researchers in the field of stress physiology and behavioral research to identify the state-of-the-art science in stress physiology as it may apply to marine mammals, identify research needs for marine mammal stress-related research, and evaluate available or developing technologies for measuring indicators of stress ultimately in free-ranging marine mammals.
Download: Final Workshop Proceedings for the Effects of Stress on Marine Mammals Workshop
ONR's MMB Program’s goal is to understand how marine mammals produce and receive sound, and are affected by anthropogenic sounds in the marine environment. Recent research efforts have focused on: looking at the anatomy of hearing; creating audiograms to determine what marine mammals hear; determining threshold shifts; and comparing behavioral psychophysical responses with auditory evoked potentials. We are also interested in how natural and anthropogenic sound fields create masking effects – reducing the capabilities of marine mammals to detect and identify sounds of interest.
Population Consequences of Acoustic Disturbance (PCAD)
A major hurdle with marine mammal conservation and management is to know if and when measurable short- term behavioral and/or physiological responses of marine mammals to disturbance result in ‘biologically significant’ or meaningful effects on individuals and/or their populations. The NRC report (2005) presented the Population Consequences of Acoustic Disturbance (PCAD) model, which is a heuristic model that defines several levels of potential effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammals ranging from behavioral effects, to effects on life functions (e.g. feeding, breeding, migrating), to effects on vital rates (e.g. adult survival, reproduction), to population level effects. Recent and future efforts of the ONR MMB Program on this topic seek to develop statistical tools to allow mathematical models of the population consequences of acoustic disturbance to be fitted to data from marine mammal populations and lead collaborative development of transferable models of the effects of disturbance on marine mammals.
Models & Databases
ONR's MMB Program’s Models & Databases for Environmental Compliance topic seeks to provide tools to support environmental compliance efforts and decision-making. Recent research efforts have focused on the collaborative program "Effects of Sound on the Marine Environment" (ESME), which is a multidisciplinary acoustic risk model that captures the state-of-the-art science to estimate risk to protected marine life from sound exposure. Components of ESME have been integrated into the NAEMO Model (NUWC) that is being used for all TAP II (and TAP III) risk assessment modeling to Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for all naval activities worldwide. Future investment under this topic will include improvements or changes to the ESME model to incorporate emerging scientific information in an open architecture/open business model system that could transition to the NAEMO model.
Download: ESME Workbench