WHOI Scientists Conduct Hearing Tests on Beluga Whales

Beluga whales have small external ear openings, located a few inches behind each eye. All work conducted under NMFS permit no. 14245. Photo by Alaska Department of Fish and Game

WOODS HOLE – Scientists with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have published the first hearing tests on a wild population of healthy marine mammals.

The tests on beluga whales in Bristol Bay, Alaska 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 previously thought.

The hearing loss findings contrasted with expectations from previous studies of humans and bottlenose dolphins, which show more loss as they age.

Aran Mooney, a WHOI biologist and lead author of two studies on belugas, says a factor could be that the whales do not live in noisy environments like most humans and dolphins do.

WHOI researchers measured the hearing sensitivity of 26 wild belugas and then compared the audiograms to acoustic measurements made within their summer habitat to study how natural soundscapes may influence hearing sensitivity.

Understanding the hearing abilities of whales and other endangered marine mammals will be crucial to assessing potential noise impacts on animals and for management efforts to mitigate sound-induced hearing loss.

More information on the two studies can be found here.

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