Thinking big. Establishing general principles from little truths: lessons from marine mammal research

February 02, 2011

Harbour seals in the forest

When most people think of scientists doing research on animals, we think of geeks in lab coats, experimenting on lab rats.  Guinea pigs.  Fruit flies.  Maybe a guppy.  Actually, marine mammals make fascinating study animals, but their aquatic lifestyle and large body size pose challenges to studying them in the wild — you try to train a blue whale to swim through a maze.  Journal of Zoology has been publishing research on the biology of animals in one form or another since 1832.  Rob serves on their editorial board, and was recently invited to write an editorial explaining why marine mammals pose tremendous challenges and opportunities to studying and protecting wildlife.

(See excerpt below, but the complete editorial is available to subscribers.)

Rob’s point is that we need to establish big-picture models of how systems work, because humans are altering the environment everywhere, quickly, and we will never have time or resources to test every possible combination of species, place and impact.  Nor should we always insist on case-specific evidence.  We should be careful before experimenting on critically endangered species, for example.  It is precautionary to use the best available science to predict how species are likely to respond to human activities.  After all, once a chemical has been shown to be toxic to a given species, we don’t insist on testing it on every other species in the animal kingdom.  Closer to home, this may mean that when it comes to protecting at-risk populations like southern resident killer whales, we should adopt what Dr Peter Ross calls a “weight of evidence approach” to decision-making.  We trust that contaminants may be impacting the whales, because excellent studies on harbour seals have shown that the contaminant levels we’re seeing in killer whales can impair reproductive function.


“Ken Norris, one of the pioneers of marine mammal science, once wrote that marine mammalogists were tasked with compiling ‘little truths on which future understandings . . . may be anchored’ (Pryor & Norris, 1991). This modest set of expectations reflects the fact that marine mammals are difficult to study because of their lifestyle; our studies are often based on infrequent glimpses of animals at the surface.  …  But it is often the case that decisions must be made in the absence of good, species-specific and context-specific information. Comparative approaches are one way of interpolating across species to predict vulnerabilities generally: these comparative approaches could be as ambitious as drawing parallels between the social structure of elephants and sperm whales. The better we understand the basic patterns of form and function in zoology, then more powerful and predictive this comparative approach becomes.

Fundamental information is needed about key animal species that can be gleaned from direct study or through comparative approaches to help us address conservation questions now and in the future. We need to establish general principles in zoology that can allow us to tackle issues as quickly as they arise. If we need to study every problem as if it were a new issue from first principles, then we will always be behind the curve and never be much use at giving advice to managers, sociologists, economists, planners and politicians.”

So.  What do you think?  Where should we place the burden of proof? We use contaminant studies on harbour seals as proxies for killer whales when we decide that we need to clean up Puget Sound if we want to protect killer whales.  What about noise impacts?  What about predicting the effects of declining salmon stocks on killer whales?  What about predicting the likely impacts of alternative energy projects on endangered species?  How much direct evidence do we need to inform decision-making about endangered species?  When is the “best available science” enough, and when is it not enough?  How do we decide when more science is needed, versus acting on the information we have available?

From:  Williams, R.  2011.  Establishing general principles from little truths: lessons from marine mammal research.  © Journal of Zoology 283, 1-2.

One Response to “Thinking big. Establishing general principles from little truths: lessons from marine mammal research”

  1. Stephanie says:

    What about diseases?

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