Passive acoustic tracking of singing humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) on a Northwest Atlantic feeding ground

Joy E Stanistreet, Denise Risch, Sofie M. Van Parijs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Passive acoustic tracking provides an unobtrusive method of studying the movement of sound-producing animals in the marine environment where traditional tracking methods may be costly or infeasible. We used passive acoustic tracking to characterize the fine-scale movements of singing humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) on a northwest Atlantic feeding ground. Male humpback whales produce complex songs, a phenomenon that is well documented in tropical regions during the winter breeding season, but also occurs at higher latitudes during other times of year. Acoustic recordings were made throughout 2009 using an array of autonomous recording units deployed in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Song was recorded during spring and fall, and individual singing whales were localized and tracked throughout the array using a correlation sum estimation method on the time-synchronized recordings. Tracks were constructed for forty-three song sessions, revealing a high level of variation in movement patterns in both the spring and fall seasons, ranging from slow meandering to faster directional movement. Tracks were 30 min to 8 h in duration, and singers traveled distances ranging from 0.9 to 20.1 km. Mean swimming speed was 2.06 km/h (SD 0.95). Patterns and rates of movement indicated that most singers were actively swimming. In one case, two singers were tracked simultaneously, revealing a potential acoustic interaction. Our results provide a first description of the movements of singers on a northwest Atlantic feeding ground, and demonstrate the utility of passive acoustic tracking for studying the fine-scale movements of cetaceans within the behavioral context of their calls. These methods have further applications for conservation and management purposes, particularly by enhancing our ability to estimate cetacean densities using passive acoustic monitoring.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPLoS ONE
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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