Scientists published the first hearing tests on a wild population of healthy marine mammals. The tests on beluga whales in Bristol Bay, AK, revealed that the whales have sensitive hearing abilities and the number of animals that experienced extensive hearing losses was far less than what scientists had anticipated.
The latter findings contrasted with expectations from previous studies of humans and bottlenose dolphins, which showed more hearing loss as they aged, says Aran Mooney, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and lead author of two new studies on beluga whales. “But unlike the wild beluga population, the dolphins that were studied lived in a very noisy environment, as most humans do.”
At a time when noise in the ocean is increasing from human activities, such as oil and gas exploration and ship traffic, understanding the natural hearing abilities of whales and other endangered marine mammals is crucial to assessing potential noise impacts on animals and to management efforts to mitigate sound-induced hearing loss.
In the two related studies, WHOI researchers and their colleagues measured the hearing sensitivity of 26 wild belugas and then compared the audiograms to acoustic measurements made within their summer habitat in Bristol Bay to study how natural soundscapes—all sounds within their environment—may influence hearing sensitivity. The soundscape also reveals sound clues that the belugas may use to navigate. The first study was published May 8, 2018, in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Results from the soundscape study were published June 20, 2018, in the Journal of Ecoacoustics.