Maya Yamato, Biology


A biochemical perspective on baleen whale sound reception

The effects of human-made noise on marine life have recently become a source of concern among scientists, governments, and even the popular press. Because the majority of human activities take place in coastal environments, the coastal oceans are the ocean regions which are most likely to be affected by noise pollution. This issue is particularly relevant to the Cape Cod community because of the construction of the Cape Wind project, which proposes to build 130 wind turbines off of the coast of Cape Cod. Noise levels will be inevitably elevated during pile-driving and construction activities, which have had demonstrable impacts on marine mammals (Madsen et al., 2006). Baleen whales may be particularly sensitive to changing noise levels in our coastal oceans, as they are known to rely on sound for vital life functions. Baleen whales also include several highly endangered species which feed and breed along the coast. Furthermore, these whales are likely most sensitive to the low frequencies that coincide with the majority of human-made noise in the oceans. However, it is difficult to assess and mitigate the effects of noise pollution on baleen whales because we lack some critical and fundamental information about their hearing.
My thesis aims to answer the questions of 1) how baleen whales receive sounds, and 2) what frequencies they hear, through an integrative approach combining techniques from biology (dissection of whale heads and histological studies of inner ears), medical imaging (CT scanning and MRI), and engineering (finite element modeling of sound propagation through various head tissues). Furthermore, recent discoveries in my research have led to the addition of a biochemical component, which is the topic of my funding request.