Expert Opinions


This week I have been hopping in and out of the Society of Marine Mammologists conference in San Francisco. This is an international event and brings mostly scientists from around the world to discuss all things Marine Mammal – from health, populations, behavior, ecology, and of course acoustic communication.

This last Saturday I attended a day-long workshop on “Perspectives and future steps in behavioral response studies of cetaceans in relation to anthropogenic sound.” with presentations on determining noise impacts and responses to sound exposures using various technologies such as digital recording tags (D-tags), and passive acoustic monitoring.

D-tag data from a sperm whale - Illustration by Jack Cook, WHOI Graphic Services; data from Stephanie Watwood, WHOI)

D-tag data from a sperm whale – Illustration by Jack Cook, WHOI Graphic Services; data from Stephanie Watwood, WHOI)

The miniaturization of electronics, the increase in memory capabilities, and the expanded sophistication of instrumentation and computer programming has really improved the data-reach into the field. Once attached to a subject animal the D-tag might record sound, monitor heart rate, log acceleration, direction, position, and location, and measure temperature. It seems that the most difficult task in marine mammal monitoring is locating and fixing a D-tag on a subject animal (and then the enormous undertaking of synthesizing terabytes of now-available data).

All of the presentations were informative, but for me one of the more interesting topics to come out of the workshop was the growing conversation around “Expert Elicitation” wherein experts in the field are polled to help land a hypothesis where for one reason or another there is either not enough data to dispel uncertainty, or where uncertainty in the answer to a hypothesis needs to find a logical footing.

One of the ongoing challenges of biology is that as much as science wants to be “exact,” biology is all about shades of grey. This is particularly the case where the subject organism resides in a dynamic habitat with complex inter-relationships with all of the other inhabitants in the environment and set upon by stressors and stimuli that are non-biological (such as chemical or anthropogenic noise pollution).

In these cases doing more research takes more time and may only yield more shades of grey – and thus just more uncertainty. The critical factor here is that while research and its findings are always interesting, the data in many of these settings are critical to establish some guidelines for protecting the animals in their habitat – and there is not enough time to get certain, repeatable answers before the conditions of concern are compromised beyond repair.

There is some methodology behind this to assure that the Principal Investigator doesn’t just call up all her pals or folks who would come up with her same assumed results. Expert Elicitation is a step toward systematic thinking that reflects the complex relationships in nature and why the field of biology originally came about. It is also a refreshing retreat from biological reductionism. And while it is not the “Precautionary Principle” it may allow for conservation actions to be taken where a lack of data might otherwise suggest acting until something breaks.

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