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Whales use the sonic equivalent of a flashlight to focus in on prey

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Many species of toothed whales have adapted to exploit prey at depth, including delphinid species such as the pilot whales shown here that sprint after squid at depths of up to 1000m.

A new study, led by the University of St Andrews and the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark, reveals that whales, dolphins and porpoises use narrow beams of high intensity sound to echolocate prey.

Trying to find your lunch in the dark using a narrow flashlight to illuminate one place at a time may not seem like the most efficient way of foraging. However, if you replace light with sound, this seems to be exactly how the largest toothed predators on the planet find their food.

The findings, published in Current Biology (Thursday 15 November), reveal that, far from being inefficient, this highly focused sense may have helped whales, dolphins and porpoises succeed as top predators in the world’s oceans.

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Sperm whales exemplify the evolutionary drive for highly intense echolocation – their nose is a massive sound generator that can take up as much as one third of the body size of an adult male

Thirty-two million years ago, the ancestors of toothed whales and baleen whales diverged and evolved the ability to echolocate: to send out sound pulses and listen for the returning echoes from objects and prey in their environment. This new sense allowed these animals to navigate and find food in dark or murky waters, during the night, or at extreme depths. Since then, this evolutionary step has allowed these animals to occupy an amazing diversity of habitats, from shallow freshwater rivers to the great ocean deeps.

The new study, led by Frants Havmand Jensen at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, sheds light on how toothed whales adapted their sonar abilities to occupy different environments. The research findings reveal that as animals grew bigger, they were able to put more energy into their echolocation sounds but, surprisingly, the sound energy increased much more than expected.

“Normally, organs tend to grow proportionally to the rest of the body, but as echolocating whales became larger, their sound generating structures started taking up more and more of the body,” says Professor Peter Teglberg Madsen, Aarhus University, who co-authored the study.

“This likely reflects an evolutionary pressure for long-range prey detection – it allowed larger whales to find prey further away, letting them hunt more efficiently in deep water,” adds Dr Jensen, now at the University of St Andrews Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI).

The pinnacle of this evolutionary push is the sperm whale, where the nose used to generate and focus sonar pulses can make up as much as one-third of the body of adult males.

While size has a big influence on how loud echolocation signals are, animals of all sizes from 1.5m harbor porpoises to 16m sperm whales used a consistently narrow bio-sonar beam to inspect their surroundings, akin to using a narrow-beam flashlight to search for food in the dark.

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Small toothed whales, like the harbor porpoise found in Danish waters, echolocate at much higher frequencies than large toothed whales, helping them maintain a narrow biosonar

“This is really similar to how our own vision works – we see best in just a narrow field of view which we turn towards whatever we want to look at,” says Dr Mark Johnson from the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews, co-author of the study. Dr Johnson adds: “These narrow sonar beams may help animals make sense of complex environments with lots of echoes.”

Using a narrow sonar beam has other advantages as well. “Focusing the sound energy in one direction also helps increase the range at which prey can be detected and thus could lead directly to higher foraging rates – provided the beam doesn’t get too narrow!” adds Jensen.


The paper Narrow acoustic field of view drives frequency scaling in toothed whale biosonar is published in Current Biology and is available online.

Please ensure that the paper’s DOI (dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2018.10.037) is included in all online stories and that Current Biology is credited as the source.

The Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) at the University of St Andrews is an interdisciplinary research institute studying the marine environment, which forms a key focus for research excellence in the marine sciences.

The Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews is a world-leading marine research institute focussing on marine mammalogy and marine ecology.

All images credit © Frants Jensen and Mark Johnson

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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