ResearchResearch methods

Research methods

Text provided by Prof. Phil Hammond

Sea Mammal Research Unit

University of St Andrews, Scotland 

The study of cetaceans at sea is primarily the study of their ecology - how organisms interact with each other and with the rest of their environment. At the level of the individual, this involves investigating foraging, social and reproductive behaviour, which influence how well animals grow, survive and reproduce in relation to elements of their physical and living environment. At the population level, we are interested in factors that influence the distribution of species in space and time, their abundance or rarity in particular areas, and fluctuations or trends in populations over time. Ecology involves the study of physiology, natural history, behaviour, evolution and population dynamics, and requires experimentation, field studies and mathematical modelling.

Cetaceans are particularly difficult targets for field studies. They typically range widely over large areas and, because their prey lives underwater, they spend a large proportion of time foraging beneath the surface. In general, cetaceans are difficult to observe and even more difficult to catch for ‘hands-on’ studies, and the methods of study that have been developed reflect these restrictions.

These methods include a variety of ‘observation’ techniques from land or at sea, visual and acoustic surveys, the recognition of individual animals using photo-identification, telemetry (remote data collection), and tissue sampling. The application of these and other methods over the last 30 years has led to a dramatic increase in our knowledge of the distribution, abundance, movements, reproduction, survival, foraging behaviour, genetics and diet of a range of cetacean species. The diagram in the Figure below illustrates how the research techniques are used to study the various aspects of cetacean ecology. This is by no means a comprehensive list but it does convey an important message: a variety of methods can be used to investigate each topic, each providing a different window through which to view it. The study of cetacean ecology is relatively recent and the use of a range of research methods has proved beneficial to the rapid improvement in our knowledge.



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