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March 28, 2005

High Schoolers Learn About
Animal Bioacoustics Research

The lecture hall in the Chemistry Building is dark and quiet. Suddenly, the room resonates with a cacophony of sounds: It’s the call of Beluga whales.

“They’re very vocal,” says Peter Scheifele, an animal bioacoustics researcher. But noise pollution is threatening their survival, he told an audience of high school students and teachers.

Scheifele’s presentation, “Animal Acoustics from Dogs to Whales: Can You Hear Me Now?” at the 42nd Junior Science and Humanities Symposium March 7. The event, attended by some 200 students and 50 teachers from 57 high schools across the state, is designed to encourage students to become involved with research and experimentation in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics.

“Beluga whales rely on sound to navigate, communicate, and find food,” said Scheifele, who studies Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River. But noise pollution may be causing them to lose their hearing.

“If you came to me and said, ‘I don’t hear very well,’ I’d ask you where you work,” Scheifele said. “Do you work in a factory? Do you have hearing protection? The more noise you get used to, the worse it is on your ears.

“Whales are subjected to noise all the time,” he said, “and they don’t have any way to protect themselves. Navy sonar, merchant vessels, and whale watching boats all cause problems. In the St. Lawrence River, during the summer, it’s not uncommon to have between two and 10 whale vessels surrounding a single animal for eight hours at a time, with their engines running, and they can’t protect themselves.”

Loss of hearing can have a disastrous effect on the whales.

“The bottom line is if an animal like a whale becomes deaf,” Scheifele said, “it’s probably not going to survive.”

Animals have many of the same issues as humans, he added. “As they get older their hearing gets worse. Human ears work best at age 17,” he said. “After that it takes a nose dive. We can amplify with hearing aids or cochlear implants, but we can’t repair nerves.”

Scheifele is an assistant professor-in-residence in the animal science department and conducts research in the neuroaudiology lab in the communications science department.

Scheifele, who is also studying companion animals, said that one out of five dogs – particularly Dalmatians and dogs that are white – are born deaf.

“Nowadays we give them hearing tests,” he said. “We use electrophysiological methods that we use with infant screening to see if a newborn will be prone to hearing problems in the future.”

Electrodes are placed on the puppies’ heads and they’re fitted with earphones. “When clicking sounds are sent into the ear, neurons in the brain start to fire in synchrony with the clicks and we get a set of waves in our printout,” Scheifele said. “For each area from the auditory nerve to the cortex, we can see the areas of the brain that are working or not working.” The test takes two minutes.

Scheifele said he’d like to test the hearing of marine animals, “but it’s difficult because their ears are not like ours. The marine mammal ear is not connected to the skull.”

Dolphins and whales hear from one place: the lower jaw. “Their inner ear is the same as ours, but we don’t know how the middle ear works,” he said. “No whale has ever told me what he hears.”

In addition to Scheifele’s talk, Jennifer Lease of the honors program gave a presentation, “Realize Your Potential: The Benefits of Attending Public Research Universities for Undergraduate Researchers”; Darcie Blanding and Kelly Melillo, of the Mystic Marine Life Aquarium, spoke on“A Day in the Life of a Dolphin Researcher”; and Gregory Sotzing, an assistant professor of chemistry and polymer science, gave a talk about “Nanoscience, Conjugated Polymers, and Some Pretty Cool Gadgets.”

About 30 high school students presented their own research.

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