Do Whales Have Ears?

Yes whales do have ears that are specially designed for being able to listen to sounds underwater.

In fact when it comes to the underwater world whales rely on their acute sense of hearing to navigate the ocean, find food, keep track of their children and communicate to one another.

Communication among whales may include informing others of a desire to mate, to alert their pod members when there is nearby danger or to let others know when they have found a large supply of fish or other prey.

Depending on the species whales will either communicate using loud low-pitched moans and whines or fast high-pitched clicks and whistles.

Baleen whales are known primarily for their loud low-pitched notes that can be heard several miles away.

These loud sounds are important for helping these marine mammals find each other over long distances and species such as the humpback whale are known to create loud mating calls to let other whales know that they are interested in mating.

Even during deep dives the baleen whales sounds can be heard underwater allowing them to attract the attention of other whales that aren’t near the surface.

Toothed whales on the other hand use fast high-pitched clicks and whistles that have different frequencies depending on the individual whale, dolphin or porpoise that is communicating.

These individual high-pitched sounds allow the marine mammals to determine who is communicating in the group and is extremely useful for helping them locate individual pod members as well as keep track of friends and family.

In addition to using their high-pitched clicks for communication toothed whales are able to use a technique known as echolocation which allows the whale to bounce sounds off of objects in the environment and gain information from the echo that returns to them such as the distance of an object, how fast it’s moving, what direction it’s in, how large it is and whether it’s a dense or hollow object.

In fact their echolocation is so advanced they are able to tell if the object is a form of food, a predator or an inanimate object.

Echolocation is extremely valuable during times when there is no light available (such as during the night time) or when they are trying to locate potential prey.

In addition to having excellent hearing a number of whale species also have excellent eyesight and rely heavily on their vision to navigate the ocean and search for prey in areas that have sufficient lighting.

By combining their acute sense of hearing with echolocation and good vision whales are extremely effective at surviving and thriving in the ocean.

Why is being able to hear in the ocean so important?

When it comes to the speed of sound there is a huge difference in how it travels on the ground and in the ocean.

In fact sound travels four times faster in water than it does on land.

This increased speed allows whales (with their highly attuned sense of hearing) to have a big advantage in the aquatic world over other animals that do not rely as heavily on sound.

In addition to the increased speed of sound that occurs in the water various whale species are able to hear a wider range of frequencies than humans and are able to listen to sounds that have occurred several miles away.

The ability to quickly detect sounds in the distance is similar to an early warning and notification system for whales as sound is often able to reach them before the opportunity of danger does.

Although their sense of hearing is sharp whales and dolphins aren’t always able to avoid attacks from predators such as killer whale or sharks, or avoid collisions with large boats and ships.

Their sense of hearing gives them a huge advantage in the ocean, but they still face unavoidable threats from time to time.

Just as with other animal species whales receive sound through their ears however, unlike other animal species whales also receive sound through their skull and jaw which helps the sound travel to the whales ear bone for improved listening and frequency range.

Are man-made sounds harming whales?

Over the decades many man-made ambient noises such as sonar (from submarines), loud boat engine noises, explosives and loud aircraft have become more and more common raising big concerns regarding the whales ability to survive in its environment.

These sounds have made it difficult for whales to rely on their hearing or echolocation to pinpoint potential prey and navigate the often pitch-black ocean.

Some of these concerns include the possibility of stranded beached whales due to difficulty navigating the ocean or distractions caused by these noises, permanent damage to hearing and hemorrhaging near the whales ear and brain tissue, possible decompression sickness from raising to the surface too quickly and difficulty locating food because of ambient interruption during the use of echolocation.

These artificial sounds aren’t just affecting the whale population either.

In addition to whales these sounds are also affecting dolphins and porpoises.

In fact all three animals are marine mammals and are part of the cetacean family, therefore they share many of the same physiological traits with one another, including the way their hearing works.

In order to better protect these marine mammals from artificial sounds continuous research is being done to look for ways to improve the artificial sounds being creating and possibly even create new laws and rules to regulate the use of these sounds in areas that may affect the lives of the marine mammals living there.

What else affects whale populations?

Whales are a protected species and even though they are no longer being hunted they are still at risk of being harmed by artificial sounds, collisions with boats and ships, pollution and construction work.

While this article focuses on how whales hear and what affects their ability to survive it’s also important to understand other factors involved in their survival and well being.

In addition to artificial man-made sounds whales are becoming more and more susceptible to collisions with large ships and boats, especially in commercial areas.

Although these marine mammals may come into contact with boats species such as the river dolphins may face even more threats due to heavy commercial travel and limited space.

Whales are also at risk of being affected by pollution and aquatic construction work which may include building bridges and dams that can affect food distribution and even separate pods and groups of whales and dolphins.

Lastly overfishing can have an affect on food scarcity for whale and dolphin populations as areas that are heavily fished tend to reduce the amount of prey available for marine mammals to consume.

In addition to this smaller whales and dolphins may get caught in fishing gear and end up drowning due to an inability to resurface for air.

When you combine the affects of artificial sounds with other factors that inhibit the survival of marine mammals the growing need to protect these animals becomes more and more apparent.

With the aid of organizations and companies focused on helping whales and other marine mammals we can hopefully find an even ground for both protecting these endangered animals and continuing to find advancements in our own technology to help the earth as a whole.