The dolphin continues to capture the imagination of investigators because of its ability to echolocate. Echolocation is essentially a special extension and adaptation of the dolphin's hearing system, coupled with the animal's ability to generate special sounds. Humans have demonstrated the ability to judge room size based on reverberation from a voice, and some of the visually challenged use self-generated sounds to detect large reflective objects. Echolocation represents a highly refined acoustic ability on a broad acoustic sensory continuum. Research on the auditory and echolocation performance of cetaceans has moved forward slowly due to limited animal resources and the general high cost of maintaining these animals in a laboratory environment.
This paper reviews some of the more relevant psychoacoustic data on cetaceans, and concentrates on the bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus. The information presented is not at all exhaustive. Early work with dolphins focused mainly on the animal's ability to use its echolocation system. Once echolocation capability was demonstrated using a blindfolded dolphin, the quest to understand dolphin sonar moved from qualifying the dolphin's echolocation skill to quantifying its basic capabilities.
Psychophysics, and more precisely psychoacoustics, provides the tools to study dolphin echolocation. The procedures, theories and even the apparatuses from the traditional psychoacoustics laboratory are adapted to the dolphin experimental setting to measure and analyze the sensory phenomenon of dolphin echolocation. Basic auditory phenomena such as the audiogram, the effects of masking, critical ratio and critical band, and interaural time and intensity discrimination capabilities have been explored in the dolphin. Additionally, special experiments investigating the psychoacoustics of the echolocation system in particular have been conducted.