3D Look Inside Whales' Heads Shows Negative Effects of Marine Noise

whale head image

Image via UCSD

What happens inside a whale's head when it encounters sound? The mammals have highly developed capabilities of detecting and processing sound waves, something that helps them communicate over long distances, but which also spell their demise in an ocean filled with intense, loud human-generated noise. We've seen research that shows scientists looking into how too-loud noise can damage and even kill whales, but now researchers at the University of California, San Diego are developing tools, including 3D simulations, to find out in more detail what happens inside a whale's head when it encounters sound, and just how loud noises harm them.The results, published in PLoS One, could prove beneficial to regulating marine noise pollution to help whales.

According to UCSD, researchers from San Diego State University, UC San Diego, and the Kolmården Zoo in Sweden are using a combination of X-ray CT scanners and modern computational methods to create a 3D look inside the head of a Cuvier's beaked whale in order to understand how sound can negatively effect whales. They'll be able to see what characteristics of sound harm the mammals.

"Our numerical analysis software can be used to conduct basic research into the mechanism of sound production and hearing in these whales, simulate exposure at sound pressure levels that would be impossible on live animals, or assess various mitigation strategies," said Petr Krysl, a UC San Diego structural engineering professor who developed the computational methods for this research. "We believe that our research can enable us to understand, and eventually reduce, the potential negative effects of high intensity sound on marine organisms."

Marine researchers have seen everything from modified behavior to beachings among whales as a result of human-generated sound. This research could be critical in proving that noise from shipping, naval sonar testing and use, oil exploration and other noises negatively impact whales.

"The primary focus of our work is Cuvier's beaked whale because some have stranded and died in the presence of Navy sonar. The discoveries we made with regard to the mechanisms of hearing in the beaked whale also apply to the bottlenose dolphin and, we suspect, to all types of toothed whales and perhaps other marine mammals," stated Krysl.

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More on Whales and Marine Noise
Human-Generated Noise Yet Another Threat to Northern Right Whales
Lost In The Sound - New Sound Maps Show Ship Noise Blocking Whale Communication
Screaming to be Heard Over Ship Noise is Taking It Out of Killer Whales

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