Journal of Experimental Biology (2009)

DOI: 10.1242/jeb.037655


Dolphins and porpoises have excellent biosonar ability, which they use for navigation, ranging and foraging. However, the role of biosonar in free-ranging small cetaceans has not been fully investigated. The biosonar behaviour and body movements of 15 free-ranging finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides) were observed using electronic tags attached to the animals. The porpoises often rotated their bodies more than 60 deg., on average, around the body axis in a dive bout. This behaviour occupied 31% of the dive duration during 186 h of effective observation time. Rolling dives were associated with extensive searching effort, and 23% of the rolling dive time was phonated, almost twice the phonation ratio of upright dives. Porpoises used short inter-click interval sonar 4.3 times more frequently during rolling dives than during upright dives. Sudden speed drops, which indicated that an individual turned around, occurred 4.5 times more frequently during rolling dives than during upright dives. Together, these data suggest that the porpoises searched extensively for targets and rolled their bodies to enlarge the search area by changing the narrow beam axis of the biosonar. Once a possible target was detected, porpoises frequently produced short-range sonar sounds. Continuous searching for prey and frequent capture trials appeared to occur during rolling dives of finless porpoises. In contrast, head movements ranging +/-2 cm, which can also change the beam axis, were regularly observed during both dives. Head movements might assist in instant assessment of the arbitrary direction by changing the beam axis rather than prey searching and pursuit.