Hearing by Whales and Dolphins

Volume 12 of the series Springer Handbook of Auditory Research pp 156-224

Communication and Acoustic Behavior of Dolphins and Whales

  • Peter L. Tyack
  • , Christopher W. Clark

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About 70 million years ago, the terrestrial ancestors of whales and dolphins reentered the ocean where life originally began. Not only did this require dramatic shifts in locomotion for swimming and in respiration for diving, but the ocean also presented a very different sensory environment. The explosive way in which cetaceans breathe reduced the usefulness of olfaction, which has limited utility underwater. Light propagates great distances rapidly in air, which makes vision particularly useful for sensing distant objects on land or in air, but light does not propagate well in water. Few objects can be seen underwater at ranges of more than a few tens of meters. By contrast, sound travels particularly well underwater. The potential for the acoustic modality to sense distant sources of sound is highlighted by recent discoveries that we can detect low-frequency calls of whales at ranges of hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometers (Costa 1993; Clark 1994b, 1995).