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Sizing Up Fish

July 20, 2006

Humpback whales may use sound to identify fish before going in for the kill


Sounding off on fish. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

[Humpback "trumpet" sound]

Humpback whales make this trumpet sound only when feeding, but why they do it has long been a mystery. Now physicist Orest Diachok of Johns Hopkins says the sound may help the humpbacks size up a school of fish. He says the sound consists of several notes, and fish of different sizes absorb different notes. So if one humpback trumpets below a school, a partner listening above the school could identify the fish.

OREST DIACHOK (Johns Hopkins):
And the whale near the surface—according to the theory—would say, yeah, I hear all the notes except one. It’s the middle G. Ah, well, in that case that must be herring.

He says humpbacks are known to hunt in teams, and he hopes to test his hypothesis by attaching microphones to them and listening in.

I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.