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J Acoust Soc Am. 2002 Jul;112(1):329-33.

Changes in auditory sensitivity with depth in a free-diving California sea lion (Zalophus californianus).

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  • 1Long Marine Laboratory, University of California, Santa Cruz 95060, USA.


All current data on underwater hearing in pinnipeds are based on tests conducted in small tanks, and may not accurately represent the auditory functioning of free-ranging animals, especially if hearing sensitivity changes with water depth. Underwater auditory thresholds were determined for a California sea lion at depths ranging from 10 to 100 meters. The following results were obtained: (1) False alarm probabilities (responding in the absence of a signal) decreased significantly with depth, indicating that the sea lion adopted a more conservative response criterion in deeper water. (2) Hearing sensitivity generally worsened with depth. (3) There was a significant interaction between depth and frequency, the depth effect being most pronounced at 10 kHz and reversing at 35 kHz. Increasing pressure related to diving probably alters the impedance characteristics of the pinniped ear, in particular affecting the size of the middle-ear air space via expansion of cavernous tissue in the middle-ear cavity. These results show that the middle ear plays a functional role in underwater sound detection in sea lions. However, contrary to previous speculation, the presence of cavernous tissue in the sea lion middle ear does not appear to enhance sensitivity at depth.

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