Subject: Whales and echolocation

Jennifer D. Philips (
Tue, 05 May 1998 21:38:09 -1000

>Dear Ms.  Philips,
>      Do whales also have echolocation like dolphins and if so how does
>echolocation work and what are its functions?

That is actually an hot issue right now in the study of echolocation.  Do
whales have echolocation or not?  Recently, some scientists are exploring
the possibility that whales do in fact us a form of echolocation, though
exactly how this might work in whales and what information it might provide
to the whales is much debated.  If the issue is considered, the first
question to answer is how are we defining echolocation?  Traditionally, in
dolphin studies, echolocation is the use of SONAR signals (aka high
frequency, broadband, short duration pulses) to detect and track objects in
the water column.  Echolocation can also be understood as the use of other
sounds for similar means, and it is possible that whales may use other
types of sounds to perform similar functions as the traditional SONAR
signals of dolphins.  The evidence is that whales most often do not produce
high frequency, broadband, short duration clicks.  They mostly produce
lower frequency, longer durations tones, such as groans, moans, etc.  But
these sounds are very loud and they do travel very far.  Some scientist are
theorizing that whales may be able to use the echos produced by these
sounds to navigate.  The echos returned as the low frequency sounds bounce
off features in the ocean basic, such as islands, sea mounts or even
continental shelves, could easily give the whale information about its
environment.  Others are even saying that the sounds can give the whales a
little information about the other whales in the closer surrounding area.
None of this is known for sure, and unfortunately we have a hard time
studying it in the wild, with no chance of studying it in captivity (whales
are way too big for captivity) .  We will learn more, though, and maybe
eventually have some more answers.

If you want to know more about echolocation specifically in dolphins,
please write again!  I hope this answers your question.

Aloha - 



Jennifer D. Philips

Marine Mammal Research Program
HIMB, University of Hawaii at Manoa
PO Box 1106			
Kailua, HI  96734
voice:  (808) 247-5063
fax: (808) 247-5831