A Theory of the Spermaceti Organ in Sperm Whale Sound Production

  • R. Stuart Mackay
Part of the NATO Advanced Study Institutes Series book series (volume 28)


At a depth of 2500 m from where William Whitney recorded sperm whales sounding normal (unpublished), the density of air is about 1/4 that of water but the velocity of sound is approximately unchanged from the surface. (Air is not quite a perfect gas: at 250 atmospheres volume is 20% too large.) Acoustic impedance (velocity x density) thus is still less than that of water, and an air film remains a good sound reflector. Reflection of a sound pulse from the frontal air sac of a sperm whale showed excellent reflection with a phase change of 180° (inversion as in Fig. 1) suggesting the spermaceti organ might serve as a frequency controlling resonator or delay line analogous to an open ended rather than closed pipe. A reverberation model (Norris and Harvey, 1972) and a bugle model (Mackay, 1972) could be relevant. The energy release mechanism can involve air but frequency is depth independent if controlled by a liquid or solid resonator (or air if geometry could be fixed, viscosity changing little).


Acoustic Impedance Sperm Whale Sound Pulse Short Pulse Length Closed Pipe 
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  1. Norris, K.S., and Harvey, G. W., 1972, A theory for the function of the spermaceti organ of the sperm whale, in: “Animal Orientation and Navigation”, Galler, Schmidt-Koenig, Jacobs and Belleville, ed., NASA SP-262.Google Scholar
  2. Mackay, R. S., 1972, Discussion to above paper, 415–416.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1980

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  • R. Stuart Mackay

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