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How whales and dolphins focus sound beams on prey

Many marine mammals live in a world shaped by sound - producing clicks to map their underwater environment out of echoes.

Researchers in Hawaii have now discovered just how finely tuned this "echolocation" can be.

The scientists found that toothed whales can focus their beam of sound - pinpointing a target with a narrow stream of clicks to study it in detail.

Their findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Laura Kloepper, a PhD student at the University Hawaii, led the study. She worked with a trained false killer whale - a member of the dolphin family - named Kina, which has been in a bay enclosure at the research institute since 1993.

Kina came to the University of Hawaii's Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology when the US Navy closed its Hawaii laboratory.

"The Navy was reducing its animal inventory at that time," Ms Kloepper told BBC Nature. "And rather than risk reintroduction to the wild, the whale was given to [my supervisor] Dr Paul Nachtigall's newly established Marine Mammal Research Program at the University.

"She's a dream to work with; we think she's probably the best echolocator in the world."

"In previous studies, she's managed to distinguish between two objects that differed in width by less than the thickness of a human hair."

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The team worked with a trained false killer whale named Kina

Scientists had suspected that this remarkable accuracy was partly due to whales' ability to adjust the focus of their echolocating sound beam.

But Ms Kloepper and her team have carried out the first tests to actually measure the beam when the animal changed focus as an "echolocating task" became more difficult.

Read on and view video

TAGGED: BIOLOGY, SCIENCE


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