Stiftung Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover (TiHo)TiHo eLib

Toothed whales use distinct vocal registers for echolocation and communication

Echolocating toothed whales (odontocetes) capture fast-moving prey in dark marine environments, which critically depends on their ability to generate powerful, ultrasonic clicks. How their supposedly air-driven sound source can produce biosonar clicks at depths of >1000 meters, while also producing rich vocal repertoires to mediate complex social communication, remains unknown. We show that odontocetes possess a sound production system based on air driven through nasal passages that is functionally analogous to laryngeal and syringeal sound production. Tissue vibration in different registers produces distinct echolocation and communication signals across all major odontocete clades, and thus provides a physiological basis for classifying their vocal repertoires. The vocal fry register is used by species from porpoises to sperm whales for generating powerful, highly air-efficient echolocation clicks.

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