Journal of Experimental Biology (2010)

DOI: 10.1242/jeb.044420


Echolocating toothed whales produce high-powered clicks by pneumatic actuation of phonic lips in their nasal complexes. All non-physeteroid toothed whales have two pairs of phonic lips allowing many of these species to produce both whistles and clicks at the same time. That has led to the hypothesis that toothed whales can increase the power outputs and bandwidths of clicks, and enable fast clicking and beam steering by acutely timed actuation of both phonic lip pairs simultaneously. Here we test that hypothesis by applying suction cup hydrophones on the sound-producing nasal complexes of three echolocating porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) with symmetrical pairs of phonic lips. Using time of arrival differences on three hydrophones, we show that all recorded clicks from these three porpoises are produced by the right pair of phonic lips with no evidence of simultaneous or independent actuation of the left pair. It is demonstrated that porpoises, despite actuation of only one sound source, can change their output and sound beam probably through conformation changes in the sound-producing soft tissues and nasal sacs, and that the coupling of the phonic lips and the melon acts as a waveguide for sound energy between 100 and 160 kHz to generate a forward-directed sound beam for echolocation.