False killer whale helps scientists study hearing, echolocation

A pseudorca, also called a false killer whale, is helping scientists at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island with some very important research.

Scientists say Kina is friendly, patient and incredibly smart — and the only false killer whale in the world dedicated to research.

“We primarily look at the hearing and echolocation of dolphins and whales. We are really interested in how the animals hear and how they’re affected by loud sounds,” said Dr. Paul Nachtigall, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

What’s unique about animals that use echolocation is that they can control what they hear, almost like a human putting your finger in your ear to decrease the volume of a loud sound.

“If you play a loud sound to Kina and if you warn her in advance, with a little warning, she can change her hearing voluntarily by 15 decibels,” Nachtigall said.

Scientists use special suction cups that have electrodes on the inside to see what the animal is hearing.

“It’s right on the surface of their skin. We pick that up and we can see what they hear from the brain wave patterns,” Nachtigall explained.

While scientists say this is basic research, they did say that others can take the research they have done and apply it to other areas of research.

Those working with Kina hope that this will lay the ground work for future findings.

“If you are going to build a better sonar, you can find that these guys have the best sonar,” Nachtigall said. “We do the very basic research and it’s up to somebody else to take that and make an application from it.”

kina false killer whale (2)

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