Thursday, 23 April 2015


Dolphins and Man-Made Sonar

Because of millions of years of evolution, dolphin echolocation abilities are much superior to those of any man-made device. For this reason, the US Navy have been studying them for years in order to improve their own sonar. What they've found has been surprising.

Dolphins are incredibly good at distinguishing their own echolocation sonar even in very noisy underwater environments – and in fact are very good at locating the drift nets that entangle and kill so many of them, raising the question of why they are still often trapped in them. It has also been found, though, that some noisy locations confuse dolphins, perhaps explaining why dolphins often ground themselves in areas where Navy ships using active sonar are performing maneuvers. 

Could the clumsier man-made sonar be using frequencies the dolphins associate with something else? Or perhaps it’s like looking into a strobe light for them. Whatever the explanation, the Navy is interested in eradicating the problem.

Dolphin Beaching
It’s the most tragic thing a dolphin lover can see: a pod of dolphins that have apparently killed themselves by swimming onto a beach and lodging themselves there. 

Why do dolphins do this?
The most prominent theory currently is that something confuses their echolocation, “blinding” them to the location of the beach in relation to the open ocean. Since many beachings happen near man-made sonar activity, it’s possible that this impacts them. 

 A pod of beached Pilot Whales

These bursts of man made sound can reach 240 decibels (billions of times more powerful than the level that causes hearing damage in humans). During testing off the California coast, noise from one of the Navy's low-frequency sonar systems was detected across the full width of the northern Pacific Ocean.

How Sonar Harms Whales
By the Navy's own estimates, even after 500 kilometres, these sound bursts can retain an intensity of 140 decibels -- a hundred times more intense than the level known to affect the behavior of large whales.

Some very recent autopsies of beached dolphin bodies show a very high percentage of damaged hearing, suggesting that a very powerful sound somewhere may have basically blown out their hearing. Dolphins see quite well, but without their ears they are disoriented and blinded. And when one dolphin beaches itself, the others are at risk because they will try to help him.

However a beaching is initiated, it’s likely that it has much to do with how a dolphin perceives sound. Hopefully, we’ll soon understand enough about dolphin hearing to be able to prevent these tragedies.

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