Bats, Whales, and Bio-Sonar: New Findings About Whales’ Foraging Behavior Reveal Surprising Evolutionary Convergence

Released: 8-May-2012 3:00 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: Acoustical Society of America (ASA)
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Citations Acoustics 2012 Hong Kong

Newswise — Though they evolved separately over millions of years in different worlds of darkness, bats and toothed whales use surprisingly similar acoustic behavior to locate, track, and capture prey using echolocation, the biological equivalent of sonar. Now a team of Danish researchers has shown that the acoustic behavior of these two types of animals while hunting is eerily similar. The findings were made possible by a new type of whale tag that allows scientists, for the first time, to track whales’ foraging behavior in the wild. The researchers will present their results at the Acoustics 2012 meeting in Hong Kong, May 13-18, a joint meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), Acoustical Society of China, Western Pacific Acoustics Conference, and the Hong Kong Institute of Acoustics.

Bats and toothed whales (which include dolphins and porpoises) had many opportunities to evolve echolocation techniques that differ from each other, since their nearest common ancestor was incapable of echolocation. Nevertheless – as scientists have known for years – bats and toothed whales rely on the same range of ultrasonic frequencies, between 15 to 200 kilohertz, to hunt their prey. (For comparison, the human hearing range is between 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz.) This overlap in frequencies is surprising because sound travels about five times faster in water than in air, giving toothed whales an order of magnitude more time than bats to make a choice about whether to intercept a potential meal.

Now, thanks to new technology that records what a whale hears as well as how it moves in the wild, Peter Teglberg Madsen of Aarhus University in Denmark and Annemarie Surlykke of the University of Southern Denmark have uncovered more similarities in the animals’ acoustic tactics.

Bats increase the number of calls per second (what researchers call a “buzz rate”) while in pursuit of prey. Whales were thought to maintain a steady rate of calls or clicks no matter how far they were from a target. But the new research shows that wild whales also increase their rate of calls or clicks during a kill – and that whales’ buzz rates are nearly identical to that of bats, at about 500 calls or clicks per second.

“On a purely physical basis, you would predict that whales and bats would operate at different [echolocation] rates and frequencies,” Madsen says. “But instead, they operate at the same rates and frequencies.” The similarities support the idea that the acoustic behavior of bats and whales may be defined by the auditory processing limitations of the mammalian brain.

Until now, Madsen continues, “it was not known how [a whale] would coordinate its acoustic behavior” in the wild to intercept its prey.

To track whales’ hunting behavior in the wild, researchers relied on a new device called the DTAG, which was developed by electrical engineer Mark Johnson at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. The DTAG attaches to a whale’s skin via suction cup and records ultrasonic frequencies (allowing scientists to analyze what a whale hears) as well as inertia and pressure readings (which allow scientists to reconstruct a whale’s movements in the water in three dimensions).

By making it possible for scientists to track whales’ foraging behavior in more detail, the new tags will also help conservationists to assess environmental impacts on whales’ behavior, Madsen says.

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The 163rd Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) will feature more than 1,300 presentations on the science of sound and its impact on physics, engineering, and medicine. This international acoustics meeting will be held jointly with the 8th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of China and the 11th Western Pacific Acoustics Conference. It is organized by the Hong Kong Institute of Acoustics and will take place May 13-18, 2012, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE 163rd ASA MEETING

USEFUL LINKS:
Main meeting website: http://acoustics2012hk.org/
Searchable index: http://asa.aip.org/asasearch.html
Hotel site: http://acoustics2012hk.org/hotel.php

WORLD WIDE PRESS ROOM
ASA's World Wide Press Room (www.acoustics.org/press) will contain additional tips on newsworthy stories and lay-language papers, which are 300-1200 word summaries of presentations written by scientists for a general audience and accompanied by photos, audio, and video.

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This news release was prepared for the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) by the American Institute of Physics (AIP).

ABOUT THE ACOUSTICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA

The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) is the premier international scientific society in acoustics devoted to the science and technology of sound. Its 7,000 members worldwide represent a broad spectrum of the study of acoustics. ASA publications include The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (the world's leading journal on acoustics), Acoustics Today magazine, ECHOES newsletter, books, and standards on acoustics. The society also holds two major scientific meetings each year. For more information about ASA, visit our website at http://www.acousticalsociety.org.


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