Cunningham, K.A., Reichmuth, C.
Existing evidence suggests that some pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses) can detect underwater sound at frequencies well above the traditional high-frequency hearing limits for their species. This phenomenon, however, is not well studied: Sensitivity patterns at frequencies beyond traditional high-frequency limits are poorly resolved, and the nature of the auditory mechanism mediating hearing at these frequencies is unknown. In the first portion of this study, auditory sensitivity patterns in the 50–180 kHz range were measured for one California sea lion (Zalophus californianus), one harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), and one spotted seal (Phoca largha). Results show the presence of two distinct slope-regions at the high-frequency ends of the audiograms of all three subjects. The first region is characterized by a rapid decrease in sensitivity with increasing frequency—i.e. a steep slope—followed by a region of much less rapid sensitivity decrease—i.e. a shallower slope. In the second portion of this study, a masking experiment was conducted to investigate how the basilar membrane of a harbor seal subject responded to acoustic energy from a narrowband masking noise centered at 140 kHz. The measured masking pattern suggests that the initial, rapid decrease in sensitivity on the high-frequency end of the subject’s audiogram is not due to cochlear constraints, as has been previously hypothesized, but rather to constraints on the conductive mechanism.
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