Friday, July 20, 2012

Can A Whale Plug Its Ears?

Kina, the false killer whale (Psuedorca crassidens).                                                        Photo Aude Pacini

Paul Nachtigall's  Marine Mammal Research Program was in the news this week - in the New York Times! You should really read the Times article, it is very well done. You can access it here: "Whales, Somehow, Are Coping with Humans' Din."

The article describes a study in which Kina (the false killer whale pictured above by MMRP graduate student Aude Pacini), is introduced to first a soft noise and then a much louder one. Kina learns to associate the two sounds and then shows the ability to damp down her hearing before the louder noise begins.

This is a great ability and should not really surprise us. For an animal that "sees" with sound, one would think that they would have some ways to adjust the input when needed (to keep from being overloaded). Marine mammals themselves make some pretty intense sound bursts.

That a marine mammal can learn to damp down its hearing in response to a "warning" sound is also not that hard to imagine. But prior to the publication of this study, if you said that a whale could  "plug its ears" if it knew a loud sound was coming - well I am fairly certain few would take you seriously.

Now as Paul notes in the article, "we have a problem in the world," and this study does not solve the problem of noise pollution in the sea. It is just a step in understanding how marine mammals deal with sound and suggests one avenue to explore to see if it is possible to the lessen impacts of burst noise pollution on marine mammals.

Many questions still remain. It is not know how  loud of sounds can be damped out or which whales and dolphins can do this (or how well does it work for each type), or even if wild populations could learn a "warning tone."  Lets hope that society and businesses feel that this is important and keep funding a priority so Paul's lab can continue on this track.

The article, again is here: "Whales, Somehow, Are Coping with Humans' Din."

Other resources:

I always enjoy MMRP graduate student  Alexis' blog:  Sounding the Sea - Bioacoustics . . . the Sound of Life.
Some very serious science done in a very readable way. You should browse back through her posts.

An older post we did on beaked whales here: Cool Stuff on Beaked Whales

And certainly peruse the Marine Mammal Research Program site. The Research link has some very good information.

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