MEPS 395:177-185 (2009)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps07979

Impact assessment research: use and misuse of habituation, sensitisation and tolerance in describing wildlife responses to anthropogenic stimuli

L. Bejder1,*, A. Samuels2,†, H. Whitehead3, H. Finn1, S. Allen1

1Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit, Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research, Murdoch University, South Street, Murdoch 6150, Western Australia
2Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole Road, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA
3Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Oxford Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4J1, Canada
*Email:  Deceased

ABSTRACT: Studies on the effects of anthropogenic activity on wildlife aim to provide a sound scientific basis for management. However, misinterpretation of the theoretical basis for these studies can jeopardise this objective and lead to management outcomes that are detrimental to the wildlife they are intended to protect. Misapplication of the terms ‘habituation’, ‘sensitisation’ and ‘tolerance’ in impact studies, for example, can lead to fundamental misinterpretations of research findings. Habituation is often used incorrectly to refer to any form of moderation in wildlife response to human disturbance, rather than to describe a progressive reduction in response to stimuli that are perceived as neither aversive nor beneficial. This misinterpretation, when coupled with the widely held assumption that habituation has a positive or neutral outcome for animals, can lead to inappropriate decisions about the threats human interactions pose to wildlife. We review the conceptual framework for the use of habituation, sensitisation and tolerance, and provide a set of principles for their appropriate application in studies of behavioural responses to anthropogenic stimuli. We describe how cases of presumed habituation or sensitisation may actually represent differences in the tolerance levels of wildlife to anthropogenic activity. This distinction is vital because impact studies must address (1) the various mechanisms by which differing tolerance levels can occur; and (2) the range of explanations for habituation- and sensitisation-type responses. We show that only one mechanism leads to true behavioural habituation (or sensitisation), while a range of mechanisms can lead to changes in tolerance.


KEY WORDS: Habituation · Sensitisation · Tolerance · Human disturbance · Wildlife management · Conservation · Impact assessment


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Cite this article as: Bejder L, Samuels A, Whitehead H, Finn H, Allen S (2009) Impact assessment research: use and misuse of habituation, sensitisation and tolerance in describing wildlife responses to anthropogenic stimuli. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 395:177-185. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps07979

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