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Kate Stafford

Principal Oceanographer

Affiliate Associate Professor, Oceanography





Department Affiliation



2000-present and while at APL-UW

Seasonal acoustic environments of beluga and bowhead whale core-use regions in the Pacific Arctic

Stafford, K.M., M. Castellote, M. Guerra, and C.L. Berchok, "Seasonal acoustic environments of beluga and bowhead whale core-use regions in the Pacific Arctic," Deep Sea Res. II, 152, 108-120, doi:10.1016/j.dsr2.2017.08.003, 2017.

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1 Jul 2018

The acoustic environment of two focal Arctic species, bowhead (Balaena mysticetus) and beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) whales, varied among the three core-use regions of the Pacific Arctic examined during the months in which both species occur: (1) January–March in the St. Lawrence Island/Anadyr Strait region, (2) November–January in the Bering Strait region, and (3) August–October in the Barrow Canyon region. Biological noise (consisting of the signals of bowhead whales, walrus and bearded seals) dominated the acoustic environment for the focal species in the St. Lawrence Island/Anadyr Strait region, which was covered with ice throughout the months studied. In the Bering Strait region whales were exposed primarily to environmental noise (in the form of wind noise) during November, before the region was ice-covered in December, and biological noise (from bowhead and walrus) again was prevalent. Anthropogenic noise dominated the Barrow Canyon region for the focal species in late summer and fall (August through October); this was also the only region in which the two species did not overlap with sea ice. Under open water conditions both near Barrow Canyon and in Bering Strait, noise levels were tightly correlated with wind. However, with climate-change driven increases in open water leading to rising noise levels across multiple fronts (atmospheric, biological, anthropogenic), the relatively pristine acoustic environment of Arctic cetaceans is changing rapidly. Characterizing the acoustic habitat of these regions before they are further altered should be considered a management and conservation priority in the Arctic.

Beluga whales in the western Beaufort Sea: Current state of knowledge on timing, distribution, habitat use and environmental drivers

Stafford, K.M, and 9 others, "Beluga whales in the western Beaufort Sea: Current state of knowledge on timing, distribution, habitat use and environmental drivers," Deep Sea Res. II, 152, 182-194, doi:10.1016/j.dsr2.2016.11.017, 2018.

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1 Jun 2018

The seasonal and geographic patterns in the distribution, residency, and density of two populations (Chukchi and Beaufort) of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) were examined using data from aerial surveys, passive acoustic recordings, and satellite telemetry to better understand this arctic species in the oceanographically complex and changing western Beaufort Sea. An aerial survey data-based model of beluga density highlights the Beaufort Sea slope as important habitat for belugas, with westerly regions becoming more important as summer progresses into fall. The Barrow Canyon region always had the highest relative densities of belugas from July–October. Passive acoustic data showed that beluga whales occupied the Beaufort slope and Beaufort Sea from early April until early November and passed each hydrophone location in three broad pulses during this time. These pulses likely represent the migrations of the two beluga populations: the first pulse in spring being from Beaufort animals, the second spring pulse Chukchi belugas, with the third, fall pulse a combination of both populations. Core-use and home range analyses of satellite-tagged belugas showed similar use of habitats as the aerial survey data, but also showed that it is predominantly the Chukchi population of belugas that uses the western Beaufort, with the exception of September when both populations overlap. Finally, an examination of these beluga datasets in the context of wind-driven changes in the local currents and water masses suggests that belugas are highly capable of adapting to oceanographic changes that may drive the distribution of their prey.

Extreme diversity in the songs of Spitsbergen's bowhead whales

Stafford, K.M., C. Lydersen, Ø. Wiig, and K.M Kovacs, "Extreme diversity in the songs of Spitsbergen's bowhead whales," Biol. Lett., 14, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2018.0056, 2018.

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4 Apr 2018

Almost all mammals communicate using sound, but few species produce complex songs. Two baleen whales sing complex songs that change annually, though only the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) has received much research attention. This study focuses on the other baleen whale singer, the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus). Members of the Spitsbergen bowhead whale population produced 184 different song types over a 3-year period, based on duty-cycled recordings from a site in Fram Strait in the northeast Atlantic. Distinct song types were recorded over short periods, lasting at most some months. This song diversity could be the result of population expansion, or immigration of animals from other populations that are no longer isolated from each other by heavy sea ice. However, this explanation does not account for the within season and annual shifting of song types. Other possible explanations for the extraordinary diversity in songs could be that it results either from weak selection pressure for interspecific identification or for maintenance of song characteristics or, alternatively, from strong pressure for novelty in a small population.

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In The News

Meet the bowhead whale, the jazz singer of the deep

Science Friday

Kate Stafford joins host John Dankowsky on the radio program to talk about the diverse songbook of bowhead whales. Over a three-year period, Stafford recorded bowhead whales in the Fram Strait in the Arctic singing 184 different melodies. The whales also altered their songs from year to year.

6 Apr 2018

Bowhead whales, the 'jazz musicians' of the Arctic, sing many different songs

UW News, Hannah Hickey

"If humpback whale song is like classical music, bowheads are jazz," says Kate Stafford. "The sound is more freeform. And when we looked through four winters of acoustic data, not only were there never any song types repeated between years, but each season had a new set of songs."

3 Apr 2018

UW research: Listen to the 'crazy, crazy' songs of bowhead whales

Seattle Times, Sandi Doughton

Kate Stafford and her colleagues have been eavesdropping on the massive, mysterious beasts for a decade. Among their early discoveries was that the whales sing nearly nonstop throughout the dark Arctic winter, hidden beneath thick sea ice. Now, the researchers have published the largest set of bowhead recordings ever compiled, documenting an astonishing repertoire of vocalizations that may be among the most diverse in the animal kingdom.

3 Apr 2018

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Acoustics Air-Sea Interaction & Remote Sensing Center for Environmental & Information Systems Center for Industrial & Medical Ultrasound Electronic & Photonic Systems Ocean Engineering Ocean Physics Polar Science Center