Study Of Hearing In Whales Is Key To Conservation Management

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist Aran Mooney and his colleagues published a new study on hearing in a population of healthy, wild whales. The study is important for a few reasons: the researchers showed how a study of hearing in a healthy population of wild whales can be done; their findings allow comparison with hearing in captive whales in aquaria; it also allows comparison between different populations of the same species.

The whales examined in this study, the Bristol Bay (Alaska) beluga whales, live in fairly quiet waters and, the study finds, have pretty good hearing. Another population of belugas—the Cook Inlet (Alaska) belugas—live in a much noisier part of the ocean and have been in decline over the last 20 years. The scientists think noise is a major stressor to the animals, and this study gives them a baseline of hearing among belugas.

The increase in human activities in Arctic ecosystems as a result of sea ice loss is creating a special concern about increasing ocean noise in the Arctic and its potential impacts on whales and dolphins. They note that “expanding our knowledge of beluga hearing is key to an appropriate conservation management effort.”

The team hopes to return to the field this summer to test a larger number of animals and attach temporary data-logging tags to learn more about their foraging, diving, and social behaviors.

Publication: Castellote, M., T. A. Mooney, L. Quakenbush, R. Hobbs, C. Goertz, E. Gaglione. “Baseline hearing abilities and variability in wild beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas).” The Journal of Experimental Biology. 

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