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Research Impact

The Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews conducts research into animal behaviour and communications, helping to minimise our damage to two highly vulnerable animal groups; cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and seals.

Its integrated research programme generates accurate estimates of UK seal demographic rates, abundance, and population trajectories. Since 2016, SMRU has used aerial surveys to cover 95% of UK haul-out sites in its investigation of Harbour Seals. Additionally, data from telemetry tags on seals has revealed dramatic population declines of up to 10% in certain regions.

SMRU’s population dynamics research has been used by the UK to fulfil its legislative obligations under the EU Habitats Directive. Since 2013, its research has been used to calculate safe upper limits on the number of seals that can be removed from a population without leading to long-term population declines.

SMRU has also worked to protect cetaceans from the impact of naval sonars which can seriously affect cetacean’s echolocation and social communication. In 2003, SMRU developed a way to determine the lowest sound level that disturbs cetaceans, which has been used to understand their responses to naval sonar.

This research has since been crucial for the effective management of naval sonar use; for instance, the US Navy used SMRU’s data while assessing and mitigating the environmental impact of its sonar activities. The Norwegian and Netherlands navies have also changed their operating procedures based on SMRU’s research.

More recently, NATO’s planned training exercises have been updated, allowing the alliance to conduct large naval operations without adversely affecting cetaceans to an unnecessary degree.