Today we'll report on an event that helped scientists get some insight into how to protect endangered baleen whales. In 2003, a baby fin whale was stranded on a California beach. Experts tried to save the newborn, but it died while being transported to safety.
That's especially tragic, since the number of whales declined drastically in the twentieth century because of whaling. At least five of the 15 species of baleen whales are endangered.
The giant animals communicate using low frequency sounds that can travel hundreds of miles through the ocean. They use these sounds to find mates and organize their social structure. Unfortunately, the sounds are being drowned out by the noise of ships at sea. Although whaling has been reduced by an international ban, the noise may be a big threat.
Governments have tried to protect them, but it's been difficult to devise the right regulations because so little is known about how baleen whales hear. That's why the baby fin whale was important.
A team of scientists from San Diego made a three dimensional map of the dead whale's head using computed x‑ray tomography. They used the map to make a computer model of its acoustic properties.
The researchers found evidence that baleen whales hear with their skull. Low frequency sounds cause the skull to vibrate, and the vibrations are carried to the inner ear.
Can the new model help scientists devise better regulations to limit ship noise?
It's an important step, but much more research will still be needed.
"What Should I Know About Baleen Whales?" (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
"Blue Whale, About Whales and Dolphins" (Whale and Dolphin Conservation)
"Defending Whales" (International Fund for Animal Welfare)
"Humpback Whales" (BBC documentary)
"Kingdom of the Blue Whale" (National Geographic)