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The modulation rate transfer function of a harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)

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During echolocation, toothed whales produce ultrasonic clicks at extremely rapid rates and listen for the returning echoes. The auditory brainstem response (ABR) duration was evaluated in terms of latency between single peaks: 5.5 ms (from peak I to VII), 3.4 ms (I–VI), and 1.4 ms (II–IV). In comparison to the killer whale and the bottlenose dolphin, the ABR of the harbour porpoise has shorter intervals between the peaks and consequently a shorter ABR duration. This indicates that the ABR duration and peak latencies are possibly related to the relative size of the auditory structures of the central nervous system and thus to the animal’s size. The ABR to a sinusoidal amplitude modulated stimulus at 125 kHz (sensitivity threshold 63 dB re 1 μPa rms) was evaluated to determine the modulation rate transfer function of a harbour porpoise. The ABR showed distinct envelope following responses up to a modulation rate of 1,900 Hz. The corresponding calculated equivalent rectangular duration of 263 μs indicates a good temporal resolution in the harbour porpoise auditory system similar to the one for the bottlenose dolphin. The results explain how the harbour porpoise can follow clicks and echoes during echolocation with very short inter click intervals.

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Auditory brainstem response


Envelope following response


Equivalent rectangular bandwidth


Equivalent rectangular duration


Fast Fourier transform


Inter click interval


Modulation rate transfer function




Sinusoidal amplitude modulated


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This study was funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research, the Faculty of Science at the University of Southern Denmark, the Graduate School on Sense Organs, Nerve Systems, Behaviour, and Communication, and Fjord&Bælt. The animals at Fjord&Bælt are kept under the permission from the Danish Forest and Nature Agency (J. nr. SN 343/FY-0014 and 1996-3446-0021). The experiments were conducted in agreement with all current Danish laws and animal care was provided according to permit nr. DK-7-0001008. We thank Jakob Tougaard and Paul Nachtigall for detailed comments that improved earlier versions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Meike Linnenschmidt.

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Linnenschmidt, M., Wahlberg, M. & Damsgaard Hansen, J. The modulation rate transfer function of a harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). J Comp Physiol A 199, 115–126 (2013).

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