Marking 40 years of the Sea Mammal Research Unit

Friday 6 September 2019

The world famous Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews has issued a special collection of research papers to mark its 40th anniversary.

Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems comprises a collection of work that showcases some of the recent marine mammal conservation research undertaken and also highlights some of the vital long-running monitoring undertaken by the Unit’s staff and students.

Marine mammals are at the top of the food chain, integrating natural and man-made fluctuations in the ecosystem. Because of their importance to the health and biodiversity of the marine environment, these charismatic species are protected in almost all countries of the world.

In order to ensure their sustainability in a rapidly changing environment, long-term interdisciplinary studies into their physiology, ecology and behaviour are vital to inform the conservation measures that need to be put in place.

Professor Sally Mapstone, Principal of the University of St Andrews, said: “The University has been enriched by SMRU’s capacity to combine pure and applied research, and by its interdisciplinary focus, as reflected by the philosophy of the Scottish Oceans Institute. This dynamic benefits both staff and students; and in this era of environmental uncertainty and conservation imperatives there is such a need to articulate scientific evidence authoritatively and accessibly.”

SMRU Director Professor Ailsa Hall said: “SMRU’s origins were principally as a Government funded research group, with a remit through the Natural Environment Research Council to provide ‘advice to government on matters relating to the management of seal populations’. This remains a key role of the Unit, as the Government and devolved administrations continue to require data on UK seal population abundance and trends.

“But knowing the numbers of seals in UK waters is not useful in isolation. What is critical is understanding how those numbers are driven by changes in the marine ecosystem and how human activities in the ocean, from fisheries to marine renewable energy developments, affects them. And alongside this remit is the fundamental, curiosity-driven research that motivates biologists and ecologists.

“SMRU’s internationally highly-regarded reputation has been gained through its novel and innovative approaches to finding ways to best study large marine species that are semi or wholly aquatic.

“SMRU’s Instrumentation Group develops electronic devices and sensors for tracking animals at sea. In addition to collecting movement and behavioural data, these devices may also collect data about a tagged animal’s immediate environment – such as sound and prey fields as well as oceanographic data. As well as being of direct biological use, the latter are also eagerly used by oceanographers and meteorologists in developing and running ocean forecast models.”

Globally whales, dolphins and porpoises (the cetaceans) have become highly valued by society, particularly following the moratorium on whaling and the expansion of the whale watching industry.  Working within international bodies (such as the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee) SMRU has pioneered the development of statistical modelling frameworks that are now widely applied in the assessment of the population dynamics and, at least in some regions of the world, the recovery of the large cetaceans, such as the blue and humpback whales.

SMRU was formed in 1978 following the amalgamation of the Seals Research Division, based in Lowestoft, and the Whale Research Unit at the Natural History Museum in London. From its early days it has been at the forefront of marine mammal research, both in the fields of applied, policy-related science and in discovery, blue-skies research. SMRU’s integration into the University of St Andrews in 1996 and the Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) in 2009 has resulted in a cohesive team of researchers with a common goal of producing excellent science for discovery and informing policy.

The body of work presented in this Special Issue represents a cross-section of the research carried out at SMRU, from long-term UK-based science to shorter-term studies on marine mammals from pole to pole. Topics reported in this collection of 19 papers range widely and include:

  • The status of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in the United Kingdom
  • Modelling the population size and dynamics of the British grey seal
  • Monitoring long-term changes in UK grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) pup production
  • The diet of harbour and grey seals around Britain: seeking evidence for the ‘ghost of competition past’
  • Colony-specific differences in decadal longitudinal body composition of a capital-breeding marine top predator
  • Measuring behavioural responses of harbour seals to potential aversive mitigation signals using field controlled exposure behavioural response studies
  • Post disturbance haulout behaviour of harbour seals
  • Investigating evidence for declining legacy contaminants in the marine environment in a sentinel species: long-term temporal patterns in persistent organic pollutants in Scottish grey seal pups from 2002 to 2017
  • Use of state-space modelling to identify environmental covariates associated with trend in pinniped demography
  • Age-length relationships in UK harbour seals during a period of decline in abundance
  • Changing distribution of the east coast of Scotland bottlenose dolphin population and the challenges of area-based management
  • Fine-scale population structure and connectivity of bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, in European waters and implications for conservation
  • Automated detection and tracking of marine mammals: a novel sonar tool for monitoring effects of marine industry
  • The importance of Southern Ocean frontal systems for the improvement of body condition in southern elephant seals
  • Habitat use of a marine top predator investigated using passive acoustics
  • Fine-scale habitat partitioning of Chilean and Peale’s dolphins and their overlap with aquaculture
  • Calculating the impact of stressors using dose-response functions
  • Site fidelity and movement patterns of short-finned pilot whales with the Canary Islands: evidence for resident and transient populations
  • A trade-off between buoyancy and energy storage in deep diving cetaceans? Implications for body condition assessments of beaked whales

The findings from the individual papers in the Special Issue will be summarised through Twitter @_SMRU_

For more information about Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems or any of the papers contact SMRU via [email protected].

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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