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What do you know about toothed whale echolocation?

Toothed whales (also known as odontocetes) have developed a special sense called echolocation that allows them to navigate and hunt in turbid-water and at depths where no light penetrates. 

What should I know about echolocation?

What is echolocation?

Water transmits sound extremely efficiently.  Toothed whales have developed the capability of emitting sounds that travel from their melons (or foreheads) and reflect off objects.  Like bats, odontocetes use this echolocation process to gather information in order to "see" the world around them.

How do odontocetes echolocate?

Echolocation involves the emission of sound and reception of its echo.  The sound is emitted in the head region and focused by the melon.  The received echoes pass through special sound conducting tissue in the lower jawbone to the inner ear.

Scientists do not agree about where the sound comes from.  Some scientists suggest that sound is emitted from a nasal plug and that the shape of the melon is altered by muscles to focus sound.  Other scientists believe that the larynx emits sound and argue that echolocation focusing is achieved by bouncing sound off various parts of the skull.  

Why is echolocation helpful?

Whales use echolocation mainly for navigation and hunting.   The cetacean environment is often dark and hard to see in.  Echolocation provides whales a way to gather information about objects and prey around them including their range and configuration. 

How sensitive is echolocation?

Echolocation is extremely sensitive. For example, dolphins in aquariums can distinguish between objects that are the size of a B-B pellet and a kernel of corn (each less than 1/2 an inch (1.27 centimeters) in diameter) at about 50 feet (15.2 meters) away.   Echolocation is so sensitive that some cetaceans, like river-dolphins, may use echolocation in place of sight.  

Do all toothed whales have echolocation abilities?

Scientists do not know.  However, scientists do think that most toothed whales such as dolphins, river-dolphins, and porpoises can echolocate. 

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