Activities, motivations and disturbance: An agent-based model of bottlenose dolphin behavioral dynamics and interactions with tourism in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

Enrico Pirotta, Leslie New, John Harwood, David Lusseau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


Agent-based models can be used to simulate spatially-explicit animal behavioral processes and their interactions with human activities. This approach can be applied to predict the potential effects of such activities on animal behavior and individual condition that could lead, in turn, to alterations in vital rates and, ultimately, long-term population change. We developed an agent-based model to describe the effect of interactions with tourism on the behavior of bottlenose dolphins in Doubtful Sound (New Zealand). The model describes the temporal variation of the individuals' hidden motivational states, the way in which these states interact to determine the activity of groups of dolphins, and the feedback influence of the group's activity on individual motivations and condition. Moreover, it realistically simulates the movement of dolphin groups in the fiord. The model also includes tour boat behavior, incorporating the way key geographical features attract these boats. In addition to tourism effects, we accounted for the spatial heterogeneity in both dolphin activities and shark predation risk. The final simulation platform generated a realistic representation of the social and behavioral dynamics of the dolphin and boat populations, as well as observed patterns of disturbance. We describe how this tool could be used to ensure effective management of the interactions between anthropogenic factors and bottlenose dolphins in Doubtful Sound, and how it could be adapted to evaluate the effects of human disturbance on other comparable populations. We then fitted the dolphin component of the model to data collected during visual studies of the Doubtful Sound dolphin population between 2000 and 2002 using a Bayesian multi-state modeling framework. However, when the parameter estimates from this fitting process were used in the agent-based model, biologically realistic representations of the population were not generated. Our results suggest that visual data from group follows alone are not sufficient to inform such agent-based models. Information on the spatial structure of the animals' activities and an appropriate measure of individual condition are also required for successful model parameterization.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-58
Number of pages15
JournalEcological Modelling
Early online date2 Apr 2014
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jun 2014

Bibliographical note

This work received funding from the MASTS pooling initiative (The Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland) and their support is gratefully acknowledged. MASTS is funded by the Scottish Funding Council (grant reference HR09011) and contributing institutions. The work also benefited from discussions with participants in a working group supported by Office of Naval Research grants N00014-09-1-0896 to the University of California, Santa Barbara and N00014-12-1-0274 to the University of California, Davis. The authors would like to thank Fredrik Christiansen, Marianne Marcoux, and Thomas Cornulier for their insightful advice and the fruitful discussions. Finally, we thank Alex Douglas for his help in gaining access to the Beowulf cluster of the University of Aberdeen


  • Agent-based model
  • Animal behavior
  • Bayesian
  • Human disturbance
  • Multi-state model
  • Wildlife tourism


Dive into the research topics of 'Activities, motivations and disturbance: An agent-based model of bottlenose dolphin behavioral dynamics and interactions with tourism in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this