Applicability of information theory to the quantification of responses to anthropogenic noise by Southeast Alaskan humpback whales

Laurance R. Doyle, Brenda McCowan, Sean F. Hanser, Christopher Chyba, Taylor Bucci, J. Ellen Blue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


We assess the effectiveness of applying information theory to the characterization and quantification of the affects of anthropogenic vessel noise on humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) vocal behavior in and around Glacier Bay, Alaska. Vessel noise has the potential to interfere with the complex vocal behavior of these humpback whales which could have direct consequences on their feeding behavior and thus ultimately on their health and reproduction. Humpback whale feeding calls recorded during conditions of high vessel-generated noise and lower levels of background noise are compared for differences in acoustic structure, use, and organization using information theoretic measures. We apply information theory in a self-referential manner (i.e., orders of entropy) to quantify the changes in signaling behavior. We then compare this with the reduction in channel capacity due to noise in Glacier Bay itself treating it as a (Gaussian) noisy channel. We find that high vessel noise is associated with an increase in the rate and repetitiveness of sequential use of feeding call types in our averaged sample of humpback whale vocalizations, indicating that vessel noise may be modifying the patterns of use of feeding calls by the endangered humpback whales in Southeast Alaska. The information theoretic approach suggested herein can make a reliable quantitative measure of such relationships and may also be adapted for wider application to many species where environmental noise is thought to be a problem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33-46
Number of pages14
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Physics and Astronomy


  • Anthropogenic noise
  • Humpback whales
  • Information theory
  • Vocal behavior
  • Wildlife conservation


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