Hearing and whistling in the deep sea: depth influences whistle spectra but does not attenuate hearing by white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) (Odontoceti, Cetacea). Academic Article uri icon


  • Hearing is attenuated in the aerial ear of humans and other land mammals tested in pressure chambers as a result of middle ear impedance changes that result from increased air density. We tested the hypothesis, based on recent middle ear models, that increasing the density of middle ear air at depth might attenuate whale hearing. Two white whales Delphinapterus leucas made dives to a platform at a depth of 5, 100, 200 or 300 m in the Pacific Ocean. During dives to station on the platform for up to 12 min, the whales whistled in response to 500 ms tones projected at random intervals to assess their hearing threshold at each depth. Analysis of response whistle spectra, whistle latency in response to tones and hearing thresholds showed that the increased hydrostatic pressure at depth changed each whale's whistle response at depth, but did not attenuate hearing overall. The finding that whale hearing is not attenuated at depth suggests that sound is conducted through the head tissues of the whale to the ear without requiring the usual ear drum/ossicular chain amplification of the aerial middle ear. These first ever hearing tests in the open ocean demonstrate that zones of audibility for human-made sounds are just as great throughout the depths to which these whales dive, or at least down to 300 m.

published proceedings

  • J Exp Biol

altmetric score

  • 3

author list (cited authors)

  • Ridgway, S. H., Carder, D. A., Kamolnick, T., Smith, R. R., Schlundt, C. E., & Elsberry, W. R.

citation count

  • 57

complete list of authors

  • Ridgway, SH||Carder, DA||Kamolnick, T||Smith, RR||Schlundt, CE||Elsberry, WR

publication date

  • November 2001