The Marine Mammals and Biology (MMB) program supports basic and applied research and technology development related to understanding the effects of sound on marine mammals, including physiological, behavioral, ecological and population-level effects.
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Research Concentration Areas
Monitoring and Detection
The 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, 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
The 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 and 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 fields in relation to physical features and marine mammal distribution and behavior.
Sensing and Tag Development: The MMB program has a long-term interest in both the invention and early stage development of new sensing technology with the goal of improving our understanding of the behavior, distribution and movements of marine mammals. 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 below); development of broad sensor suites into tags; and improving accessibility of sensors, tags and attachments to the research and Navy communities.
ONR, in partnership with the International Whaling Commission and NOAA, hosted a workshop on cetacean tag developments, tag follow-up and tagging best practices on September 6-8, 2017, and a follow-up smaller workshop on June 19-20, 2018. Download: Report of the Joint U.S. Office of Naval Research, International Whaling Commission and U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Workshop on Cetacean Tag Development, Tag Follow-up and Tagging Best Practices
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 the 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): The 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 population-level effects and/or the potential for 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 a team of both U.S. and international researchers: Southern California (SOCAL BRS) and Norwegian waters (3S program).
- Diving Physiology: The 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. The 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 and 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.
- Hearing: The MMB program’s goal is to advance our understanding of sound reception and production mechanisms in marine mammals. Most of the research on hearing and the physiological effects of sound have been conducted on a few small odontocete species in captivity, but little is known about mysticete whales. Advancing our understanding of sound reception mechanisms in mysticetes will require a thorough exploration of the anatomy surrounding the ear and the whole head combined with modeling sound propagation through various tissues of whale heads and/or bodies.
- 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 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
The MMB program’s models and databases for environmental compliance topic seeks to provide tools to support environmental compliance efforts and decision-making related to how marine mammals are affected by anthropogenic sounds. Recent investments have been in developing and implementing the Animal Telemetry Network (ATN).
Research Challenges and Opportunities
Pre-proposals due: 15 July 2021
Invitation full proposal: August/September 2021
Full proposals due: September/October 2021 (unless otherwise negotiated)
Proposal review/selection/notification: October 2021 - February 2022
Proposal funding date: November 2021 forward (depending on when we know our budget)
For More Information
- MMB had a program review April 23 -26, 2019. (Download the Program Review Abstract Book.)
- ONR sponsored a workshop on September 11-13, 2017 with a report titled “Current Status and Future Directions of Marine Mammal Diving Physiology: Considerations for the effect of military sonar on deep-diving cetaceans." The workshop’s purpose was to review and assess the current state of knowledge regarding the mechanisms that enable marine mammals to dive for extended periods to deep depths, and the potential physiological and biochemical risk factors that may cause formation of gas emboli and increase decompression sickness risk. The workshop specifically addressed the potential risk of beaked whales exposed to mid-frequency active sonar, and evaluated the potential for other physiological risks. The workshop included MMB principal investigators whose research was presented and reviewed, and a small number of selected participants who contributed their expertise on the state of research and provided recommendations for future research priorities.
- MMB had a program review on September 11, 2017. The topic covered was diving physiology (download the Program Review Abstract Book).
- MMB hosted a program review on March 20-23, 2017. Topics covered included monitoring and detection; integrated ecosystems, sensor and tag development, effects of sound/hearing, effects of sound/physiology, and models and databases (download the Program Review Abstract Book).
- ONR cosponsored a workshop to review the status and future research needs of the behavioral responses of marine mammals to naval sonar exposure. The workshop was held April 21-22, 2015 in Monterey, California (download the Report on the Current Status and Future of Behavioral Response Research).