Structure and function in whale ears

Darlene R. Ketten (1997). Structure and function in whale ears. Bioacoustics, Volume 8 (1-2): 103 -135

Ultrasonic echolocation abilities are well documented in several dolphin species, but hearing characteristics are unknown for most whales. Vocalization data suggest whale hearing spans infra- to ultrasonic ranges. This paper presents an overview of whale ear anatomy and analyzes 1) how whale ears are adapted for underwater hearing and 2) how inner ear differences relate to different hearing capacities among whales. Whales have adaptations for rapid, deep diving and long submersion; e.g., broad-bore Eustachian tubes, no pinnae, and no air-feed external canals, that impact sound reception. In odontocetes, two soft tissue channels conduct sound to the ear. In mysticetes, bone and soft tissue conduction are likely. The middle ear is air-filled but has an extensible mucosa. Cochlear structures are hypertrophied and vestibular components are reduced. Auditory ganglion cell densities are double land mammal averages (2000-4000/mm). Basilar membrane lengths range 20-70 mm; gradients are larger than in terrestrial mammals. Odontocetes have 20-60% bony membrane support and basal ratios >0.6, consistent with hearing >150 kHz. Mysticetes have apical ratios <0.002 and no bony lateral support, implying acute infrasonic hearing. Cochlear hypertrophy may be adaptive for high background noise. Vestibular loss is consistent with cervical fusion. Exceptionally high auditory fiber counts suggest both mysticetes and odontocetes have ears “wired” for more complex signal processing mechanisms than most land mammals.


cetacean ear, inner ear, odontocete, mysticete, basilar membrane, cochlea, auditory system, auditory nerve