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US Navy supports Danish research into porpoise hearing

Studies of porpoises’ and dolphins' ability to navigate at sea may lead to the development of new advanced equipment for underwater locating of submarines, mines and drowned persons.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 1/23/2020

Despite centuries of intense research, it is still extremely difficult to find submarines, mines and other objects below sea level.
Or to be more precise: It's difficult for humans.

By contrast, a number of animals have the amazing ability to quickly find even very small objects below sea level. This talent is mastered by, among other animals, porpoises and dolphins, studied by biologists at University of Southern Denmark.

This research has attracted the attention of the US Navys Office of Naval Research (ONR), which has granted DKK 2,608,084 to biologist Magnus Wahlberg. He studies the behavior of marine animals and especially their ability to hear when underwater.

Birds also have the talent

The grant will support Wahlberg's ambition to better understand how porpoises and other toothed whales use their hearing sense and echolocation when hunting prey.

- ONR is interested in our research in porpoise hearing and biosonar, because we can make some very unique experiments together with our neighbor and partner, the Fjord & Belt Center in Kerteminde, where SDU's research station is also located, says Magnus Wahlberg.

This grant is the second from Office of Naval Research supporting Wahlberg's work. Previously ONR has supported studies of marine birds’ hearing underwater.

Interests are not always military

The aim is that the research can help develop the sonar of the future. Sonars are a type of underwater sound radar, frequently used by fishermen to find fish, energy companies to find gas and oil, and by the navy to find enemy divers, submarines, drowned people, un-detonated mines, etc.

- Despite intense research in the field, dolphins and porpoises are still the absolute best for these tasks., and man-made equipment doesn’t come even close, says Magnus Wahlberg.

ONR is part of the US defense, but their support is not always for military research. ONR also supports a civilian research. It is quite rare for their research to support projects outside the United States.

Who else is involved?

In this project, Magnus Wahlberg will work with Professor Cynthia Moss, Johns Hopkins University, USA, Professor Peter Madsen, Aarhus University and Fjord & Belt Center in Kerteminde.

The project also employs an American post doc, Adam Smit, who has previously worked in Hawaii, the US and Iceland.

Meet the researcher

Magnus Wahlberg is an expert in the behaviour and hearing of marine animals at the Marine Biological Research Centre.

Read more about Marine Biological Research Centre