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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Environmental Noise and Decision Making Possible Implications of Increases in Anthropogenic Noise for Information Processing in Marine Mammals

  • Author(s): Bateson, Melissa
  • et al.

Recent increases in anthropogenic noise in the marine environment are a source of concern for the current welfare and future fitness of many marine mammal species. In this article I explore the specific question of how environmental noise could affect information processing. I also discuss the possible changes in behavior that would result, and how these changes could negatively impact the welfare and fitness of marine mammals. I identify two ways in which environmental noise could affect decision-making. First, environmental noise could add statistical noise to the detection of auditory signals, either masking them completely or rendering them ambiguous. Animals can respond to this problem either by moving away from the source of noise, or by altering the characteristics of their signal processing to increase the signal to noise ratio. Second, environmental noise could generate emotional states of fear or anxiety that cause biases in information processing. Anxiety is an emotion that functions as an early warning of potential threats, and is associated with a suite of changes in information processing including sensitization to stimuli potentially associated with threats, and pessimistic biases in decision making resulting in increased risk aversion. Although these changes are clearly beneficial in the short term, chronic anxiety is likely to result in behavioral changes that will be detrimental to an animal’s fitness in the longer term. Thus, there are likely to be subtle effects of noise on decision-making that have not so far been considered in relation to the effects of anthropogenic noise on marine mammal behavior.

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