Fish & Shrimp & Seals, Oh My! Soundscapes of Hawaiian monk seal habitats are dominated by biophony
Kirby Parnell – firstname.lastname@example.org
Marine Mammal Research Program, University of Hawaii Manoa, Kaneohe, HI, 96744, United States
Aude Pacini – twitter: @audepacini
Lars Bejder – twitter: @lbejder, @MMRP_UH
Popular version of 5aUW-Underwater soundscapes at critical habitats of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, presented at the 183rd ASA Meeting.
The ocean is a noisy place. From chatty marine mammals to territorial fish and hungry shrimp, marine animals use sound to communicate, navigate, defend territories, and find food, mates, and safe spaces to settle down. However, human activities are negatively impacting the abilities of marine animals to effectively use sound for critical life functions. For the endangered Hawaiian monk seal with a population size of approximately 1,570 seals, we’re finding that vocal communication (Audio File 1) may play an important role for reproduction, yet we lack a foundational knowledge of the seals’ acoustic environment, better known as a soundscape. In this study, we found that biological sounds produced by snapping shrimp, fish, and seals dominate and shape the underwater soundscapes at critical habitats of the Hawaiian monk seal, with little input from man-made sources (Figure 1).
Figure 1 | A) Spectrogram of a 24-hour period on 11 May 2021 at Lehua Rock. A spectrogram is a visual representation of a sound where the x-axis is time, the y-axis is frequency (or pitch), and the color represents the amplitude of the sound (how loud or soft the sound is). The black icons indicate the source of the sound: snapping shrimp, boat, scuba divers, humpback whale song, Hawaiian monk seal vocalizations, and the vertical migration of the deep scattering layer. B) Spectrogram showing overlapping Hawaiian monk seal vocalizations from 0-1 kHz and humpback whale song from 0.5-5 kHz (listen to this in Audio File 1).
We sought to describe the underwater soundscape, or the acoustic environment, at locations that Hawaiian monk seals utilize for foraging, breeding, communication, and other critical life functions. We wanted to know 1) how loud are ambient (background) sound levels, 2) are sound sources biological, geophysical, or manmade, 3) how do sound sources and levels change throughout the day, and 4) how does the soundscape compare between the more-densely human-populated main Hawaiian Islands and the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. To do this, we deployed passive acoustic recorders, known as SoundTraps, at four critical habitats of the Hawaiian monk seal: Rabbit Island, Oahu; Lehua Rock, Niʻihau; French Frigate Shoals; and Pearl and Hermes Reef. The SoundTraps recorded sounds from 20 Hz up to 24 kHz – this includes low-frequency sounds like earthquakes to high-frequency sounds like dolphin echolocation.
Our results indicate that sound levels are generally loud at these nearshore reef environments thanks to the persistent crackling sounds of snapping shrimp, low-frequency vocalizations of monk seals, and a variety of fish sounds. With little input from manmade sound sources, except at the popular scuba diving site Lehua Rock, we suspect that the elevated sound levels are indicative of healthy reef environments. This is good news for Hawaiian monk seals – less manmade noise means less acoustic masking making it easier to hear and “speak” to each other under water. We also opportunistically recorded sounds from Hurricane Douglas (Category 4) and a 6.2 magnitude earthquake around the time Kilauea began erupting. Overall, this study provides the first description of underwater soundscapes at Hawaiian monk seal critical habitats. These measurements can serve as a baseline for future studies to understand the impact of human activity on underwater soundscapes.