Characterization of St. Lawrence blue whale vocalizations and their correlation with field observations


During four field seasons from 1998--2001, 115 hours of acoustic recordings were made in the presence of the well-studied St. Lawrence population of blue whales. The primary field site for this study was the estuary region of the St. Lawrence River (Quebec, Canada) with most recordings made between mid-August and late October. Effort was concentrated in the daylight hours, although occasionally extending past nightfall. An inexpensive and portable recording system was built that was easy to deploy and provided quality recordings in a variety of sea conditions. It consisted of a calibrated omni-directional hydrophone with a flat (+/-3dB) response from 5Hz to 800Hz; and a surface isolation buoy to minimize the vertical movement of the sensor. During the recording sessions detailed field notes were taken on all blue whales within sight, with individual identities confirmed through photo-identification work between sessions. Notes were also taken on all other species sighted during the recording sessions. Characterization of the more than one-thousand blue whale calls detected during this study revealed that the St. Lawrence repertoire is much more extensive than previously reported. Three infrasonic (<20Hz) and four audible range (30--200Hz) call types were detected in this study, with much time/frequency variation seen within each type. The infrasonic calls were long (5--30s) in duration and arranged into regularly patterned series. These calls were similar in call characteristics and spacing to those detected in the North Atlantic, but had much shorter and more variable patterned series. The audible call types were much shorter (1--4s), and occurred singly or in irregularly spaced clusters, although a special patterning was seen that contained both regular and irregular spaced components. Comparison of the daily, seasonal, and spatial distributions of calling behavior with those of several biological parameters revealed interesting differences between the three call types examined. The trends seen suggest a migratory, reproductive, or foraging context for the infrasonic calls. A closer-range social context is suggested for the audible downsweeps, which have been detected in foraging situations as well as in courtship displays. The audible mixed-pattern call type appears to have a primarily reproductive context.

Berchok, Catherine. 2004. Characterization of St. Lawrence blue whale vocalizations and their correlation with field observations. Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.Pennsylvania State University.

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