Associate Professor Rebecca Dunlop

Associate Professor in Physiology

School of the Environment
Faculty of Science
r.dunlop@uq.edu.au
+61 7 54601 963
*

Overview

Originally from Ireland, Rebecca Dunlop completed her BSc (Honours) degree in Environmental Biology followed by her PhD in fish neuroethology, both from The Queen’s University of Belfast. She migrated Australia in 2004 to undertake a post-doc in humpback whale social communication at UQ where the research resulted in a number of highly cited papers, solidifying her international reputation as a leader and expert in large whale communication and social behaviour. She then began lecturing in the School of Veterinary Science in 2010, mainly in animal physiology and moved to the School of Biological Sciences in 2021 to take up a lecturing position in animal behaviour and physiology.

Research

Rebecca'a research interests are in animal physiology, behaviour, and communication. She mainly works on humpback whales, though has worked on bottlenose dolphins, beaked whales, pilot whales, and false killer whales. Her lab focuses on four main research areas: cetacean acoustic communication, hearing, and behaviour; the effects of noise on humpback communication, behaviour, and physiology; humpback whale social behaviour; and endocrine physiology in cetaceans. Her past and current PhD students and honours students all work within these core research areas.

She is, or has been, a P.I in several large collaborative projects aimed at determining the effects of noise on large whale behaviour and hearing in large whales. Understanding underwater noise impacts on marine mammals is a scientific area that is growing due to interest from the Navy, Oil and Gas companies, the vessel industry and from other ocean stakeholders such as whale watching companies.

Her work on social behaviour and reproductive behaviour uses a combination of behavioural and physiological indicators of reproductive status as well as stress and she currently has an endocrinology lab based at Moreton Bay Research Station. She also collaborates with researchers within the school of veterinary science to develop projects on large whale health and disease.

Research Interests

  • Effects of noise on large whale behaviour and acoustic behaviour
    Behavioural response studies and population-level consequences of disturbance modelling.
  • Acoustic communication in marine mammals
    Includes function of vocal sounds, surface generated sounds, as well as information encoded in their breeding signals.
  • Hearing in marine mammals
    Hearing sensitivity in humpback whales including hearing range and the effects of auditory masking.

Research Impacts

Rebecca's research attracts large scale international defence and industry funding, with outputs directly guiding international and national policy. Understanding underwater noise impacts on marine mammals is a scientific area, as well as how they hear underwater, is a prolific research area due to interest from the Navy, Oil and Gas companies, the vessel industry, and other ocean stakeholders such as whale watching companies. One of her major projects; the effects of noise on humpback whale behaviour (project BRAHSS) produced a body of work of global significance, which is now being used for the environmental management of marine mammals, and has resulted in invitations to participate in, and speak at, many international meetings on marine mammals and noise. Her outputs are directed at, and being used by, policy makers internationally (BOEM and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Department, U.S.) and nationally (the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, Australia). Her recent project on humpback whale hearing will be used to inform current baleen whale hearing models, ultimately improving current policy on mitigating the effects of increased anthropogenic noise on whale populations.

Qualifications

  • Doctor of Philosophy, Queen's University Belfast
  • Bachelor of Science, Queen's University Belfast

Publications

View all Publications

Supervision

View all Supervision

Available Projects

  • As many large whale species and populations recover from exploitation, there is a substantial increase in the numbers of whales inhabiting populated coastlines. During the time these coastlines have developed and become more populated, there has also been a large increase in the number, size, and speed of vessels. This has resulted in an increased probability that large whales will collide with vessels. When large ships collide with whales, they can injure or kill the whales but are unlikely to damage the ship. In collisions with smaller vessels, there is a higher risk of damage to the vessel, injury to the whale and, most importantly, injury to passengers and crew. Therefore, both the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and Conservation and Scientific Committees, are examining ship strike as an emerging and important issue. The IWC, for example, has focused on developing a strategic plan to mitigate ship strike impacts, and aims, by 2020, to achieve a permanent reduction in ship strikes.

    Strategies to mitigate for collisions between whales and vessels are not used globally, as there must be some identifiable collision risk. The easiest way to identify and quantify a collision risk for a species within a particular area is to use simple temporal estimates of species density overlayed on shipping routes and lanes; known as a “static model”. An increase in species density close to heavily used shipping channels would be given a high collision risk. However, these models do not account for the movement of the whales relative to the ships in that whales may avoid the ship to prevent collision. Further, given there is no inclusion of behavioural response data, it is difficult to say how mitigation measures such as a reduction in vessel speed would reduce the risk collision without making generalised assumptions. “Dynamic” models include information on how whales behave around different types of vessels in terms of their avoidance strategies, which factors dictate the use of these strategies (e.g., a female with a calf may use a different strategy to a group of adults), and which cues they use (e.g., received level of noise, vessel proximity, vessel speed and trajectory). From these dynamic interaction models, the risk of collision can be quantified much more accurately as well as changes in the risk with changes in vessel speed. However, dynamic models require much more information that the basic static model meaning there are few available.

    The PhD project will collect behavioural response data from a field site based at Caloundra, on the Sunshine coast. Here, the shipping channel is relatively close to shore, and is located within humpback whale migratory corridor. Ships are moving in and out of Moreton Bay daily. During the humpback migration, ships are moving at speed, and close to, migrating humpback whale groups. This offers an opportunity to collect behavioural response data on the response of groups to fast-moving ships, as well as the factors that contribute to this response such as the vessel’s speed, size, proximity to the group, and received level of noise. These data will be used to generate both static and dynamic models of the risk of collision risk between humpbacks and vessels and compare these models. Once models are created, various mitigation measures will be introduced to the models, such as reduction in vessel speed, and the risk of collision compared. Outcomes will inform the assessment of risk for industry (reputational risk for port authorities), the environment (risk of whales injured or killed, and safety (human injuries and possible fatalities) and develop globally applicable mitigation measures to reduce these risks.

  • Humpback whales are renowned for their complex acoustic communication repertoire. For example, male humpback whales utilise a wide and varied acoustic communication repertoire whilst undertaking breeding interactions. They use song, which likely functions as a sexual selection signal directed at females, and/or use social sounds, which likely function as female sexual selection signals as well as male-male interaction signals. Song also may be a male-male interaction signal in that eavesdropping males can gain information from the singing male, even if the song is not directed at them.

    To find females, males switch tactics between singing and ‘seeking’ (i.e., actively seeking out a female and joining with her, which can lead to fighting with other males (Dunlop and Frere 2023). Their choice of tactic is significantly related to the density of other males within their ‘social circle’. In low male densities, where competition for females is low, males tend to sing. In higher male densities, males will cease to sing and switch to the ‘seeker’ tactic. This is likely because of the balance of costs and benefits of each tactic. If choosing to sing, the male may attract a female, however, the risk is this male may attract other eavesdropping males that can interrupt his song and displace him from the area if alone, or from the female, if with a female (Dunlop and Noad 2016, 2021). In higher male densities, the seeker tactic may be more successful given the increased competition. If quietly seeking out a female rather than advertising using song, there is less risk of attracting an eavesdropping male. However, despite the fact much is known about these breeding behaviours, the information contained within the song, in terms of singer’s fitness, is currently unknown.

    Following these studies, the PhD project will determine if there are parameters in the song that are likely to encode the singer’s fitness. It will utilise behavioural datasets of singers and their breeding interactions that have been collected during various field seasons from the late 90’s to mid-2000’s. Song parameters that may signal fitness, such as unit peak frequencies, unit duration, phrase repetition rate, source level, will be compared across different male breeding to test the hypothesis that fitter males are those ones that successfully join a female whilst not attracting male competition, whereas less fit males are those that attracted male competitors. Ultimately, this will improve our understanding of acoustically-mediated breeding behaviour in humpback whales.

    There is also the potential to collect more focussed data during this PhD. For example, collecting fitness information on individual singing males, such as body condition using drone photogrammetry and testosterone levels using biopsy samples. This may provide an opportunity to further test specific findings from the song analysis. This will depend on the student’s ability to seek project funding noting that many past students in the lab have had successful grant applications.

View all Available Projects

Publications

Book

Book Chapter

  • Gannon, William L., Dunlop, Rebecca, Hawkins, Anthony and Thomas, Jeanette A. (2022). Collecting, documenting, and archiving bioacoustical data and metadata. Exploring animal behavior through sound. (pp. 87-110) edited by Christine Erbe and Jeanette A. Thomas. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-97540-1_3

  • Dunlop, Rebecca A. (2022). Humpback whales: a seemingly socially simple whale with communicative complexity. Ethology and behavioral ecology of mysticetes. (pp. 223-246) edited by Christopher W. Clark and Ellen C. Garland. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-98449-6_10

  • Dunlop, Rebecca, Gannon, William L., Kiley-Worthington, Marthe, Hill, Peggy S. M., Wessel, Andreas and Thomas, Jeanette A. (2022). Vibrational and acoustic communication in animals. Exploring animal behavior through sound. (pp. 389-417) edited by Christine Erbe and Jeanette A. Thomas. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-97540-1_11

  • Erbe, Christine, Dunlop, Rebecca and Dolman, Sarah (2018). Effects of noise on marine mammals. Effects of anthropogenic noise on animals. (pp. 277-309) edited by Hans Slabbekoorn, Robert J. Dooling, Arthur N. Popper and Richard R. Fay. New York, NY, United States: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-8574-6_10

  • Cato, Douglas H., Dunlop, Rebecca A., Noad, Michael J., McCauley, Robert D., Kniest, Eric, Paton, David and Kavanagh, Ailbhe S. (2016). Addressing challenges in studies of behavioral responses of whales to noise. The effects of noise on aquatic life II. (pp. 145-152) edited by Arthur N. Popper and Anthony Hawkins. New York, United States: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-2981-8_17

  • Lewandowski, Jill, Luczkovich, Joseph, Cato, Douglas and Dunlop, Rebecca (2016). Summary report panel 3: Gap analysis from the perspective of animal biology: Results of the panel discussion from the third international conference on the effects of noise on aquatic life. The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life II. (pp. 1277-1281) edited by Arthur N. Popper and Anthony Hawkins. New York, United States: Springer New York LLC. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-2981-8_161

  • Harcourt, Robert, Marsh, Helene, Slip, David, Chilvers, Louise, Noad, Mike and Dunlop, Rebecca (2015). Marine mammals, back from the brink? Contemporary conservation issues. Austral ark: the state of wildlife in Australia and New Zealand. (pp. 322-353) edited by Adam Stow, Norman Maclea and Gregory I. Holwell. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Journal Article

Conference Publication

Other Outputs

Grants (Administered at UQ)

PhD and MPhil Supervision

Current Supervision

  • Doctor Philosophy — Principal Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Principal Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

    Other advisors:

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

Completed Supervision

Possible Research Projects

Note for students: The possible research projects listed on this page may not be comprehensive or up to date. Always feel free to contact the staff for more information, and also with your own research ideas.

  • As many large whale species and populations recover from exploitation, there is a substantial increase in the numbers of whales inhabiting populated coastlines. During the time these coastlines have developed and become more populated, there has also been a large increase in the number, size, and speed of vessels. This has resulted in an increased probability that large whales will collide with vessels. When large ships collide with whales, they can injure or kill the whales but are unlikely to damage the ship. In collisions with smaller vessels, there is a higher risk of damage to the vessel, injury to the whale and, most importantly, injury to passengers and crew. Therefore, both the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and Conservation and Scientific Committees, are examining ship strike as an emerging and important issue. The IWC, for example, has focused on developing a strategic plan to mitigate ship strike impacts, and aims, by 2020, to achieve a permanent reduction in ship strikes.

    Strategies to mitigate for collisions between whales and vessels are not used globally, as there must be some identifiable collision risk. The easiest way to identify and quantify a collision risk for a species within a particular area is to use simple temporal estimates of species density overlayed on shipping routes and lanes; known as a “static model”. An increase in species density close to heavily used shipping channels would be given a high collision risk. However, these models do not account for the movement of the whales relative to the ships in that whales may avoid the ship to prevent collision. Further, given there is no inclusion of behavioural response data, it is difficult to say how mitigation measures such as a reduction in vessel speed would reduce the risk collision without making generalised assumptions. “Dynamic” models include information on how whales behave around different types of vessels in terms of their avoidance strategies, which factors dictate the use of these strategies (e.g., a female with a calf may use a different strategy to a group of adults), and which cues they use (e.g., received level of noise, vessel proximity, vessel speed and trajectory). From these dynamic interaction models, the risk of collision can be quantified much more accurately as well as changes in the risk with changes in vessel speed. However, dynamic models require much more information that the basic static model meaning there are few available.

    The PhD project will collect behavioural response data from a field site based at Caloundra, on the Sunshine coast. Here, the shipping channel is relatively close to shore, and is located within humpback whale migratory corridor. Ships are moving in and out of Moreton Bay daily. During the humpback migration, ships are moving at speed, and close to, migrating humpback whale groups. This offers an opportunity to collect behavioural response data on the response of groups to fast-moving ships, as well as the factors that contribute to this response such as the vessel’s speed, size, proximity to the group, and received level of noise. These data will be used to generate both static and dynamic models of the risk of collision risk between humpbacks and vessels and compare these models. Once models are created, various mitigation measures will be introduced to the models, such as reduction in vessel speed, and the risk of collision compared. Outcomes will inform the assessment of risk for industry (reputational risk for port authorities), the environment (risk of whales injured or killed, and safety (human injuries and possible fatalities) and develop globally applicable mitigation measures to reduce these risks.

  • Humpback whales are renowned for their complex acoustic communication repertoire. For example, male humpback whales utilise a wide and varied acoustic communication repertoire whilst undertaking breeding interactions. They use song, which likely functions as a sexual selection signal directed at females, and/or use social sounds, which likely function as female sexual selection signals as well as male-male interaction signals. Song also may be a male-male interaction signal in that eavesdropping males can gain information from the singing male, even if the song is not directed at them.

    To find females, males switch tactics between singing and ‘seeking’ (i.e., actively seeking out a female and joining with her, which can lead to fighting with other males (Dunlop and Frere 2023). Their choice of tactic is significantly related to the density of other males within their ‘social circle’. In low male densities, where competition for females is low, males tend to sing. In higher male densities, males will cease to sing and switch to the ‘seeker’ tactic. This is likely because of the balance of costs and benefits of each tactic. If choosing to sing, the male may attract a female, however, the risk is this male may attract other eavesdropping males that can interrupt his song and displace him from the area if alone, or from the female, if with a female (Dunlop and Noad 2016, 2021). In higher male densities, the seeker tactic may be more successful given the increased competition. If quietly seeking out a female rather than advertising using song, there is less risk of attracting an eavesdropping male. However, despite the fact much is known about these breeding behaviours, the information contained within the song, in terms of singer’s fitness, is currently unknown.

    Following these studies, the PhD project will determine if there are parameters in the song that are likely to encode the singer’s fitness. It will utilise behavioural datasets of singers and their breeding interactions that have been collected during various field seasons from the late 90’s to mid-2000’s. Song parameters that may signal fitness, such as unit peak frequencies, unit duration, phrase repetition rate, source level, will be compared across different male breeding to test the hypothesis that fitter males are those ones that successfully join a female whilst not attracting male competition, whereas less fit males are those that attracted male competitors. Ultimately, this will improve our understanding of acoustically-mediated breeding behaviour in humpback whales.

    There is also the potential to collect more focussed data during this PhD. For example, collecting fitness information on individual singing males, such as body condition using drone photogrammetry and testosterone levels using biopsy samples. This may provide an opportunity to further test specific findings from the song analysis. This will depend on the student’s ability to seek project funding noting that many past students in the lab have had successful grant applications.