Scientists have confirmed that toothed whales use vocal cords to produce various sounds, which was previously only confirmed in humans and crows.
AILSA CHANGE, HOST:
Vocal Fry – You know that low, crackling voice a lot of people use? Well, new research in the journal Science now shows that it’s the same type of vocalization that allows certain types of whales to find and catch food. The reporter Arrian Daniel has more knowledge.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: PASSENGER P. Scotty (ph), your flight is ready for departure.
ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: Arresting Coen Elemans at the Copenhagen airport.
COEN ELEMENTS: They usually never say anything at this airport. They are very vocal today.
DANIEL: He’s a bioacoustic professor at the University of Southern Denmark, and he says the airport is as good a place as any to hear the differences in human vocalizations.
ELEMENTS: That’s what I hear a lot of people talking about. They usually use what is called a box.
DANIEL: This is our typical voice.
MUSICAL ARTIST UNIDENTIFIED: (Singing, inaudible).
DANIEL: Then Elemans notes some music. The place where we most often hear our upper vocal register on display is the falsetto.
ELEMENTS: (Vocalizing) chanting.
DANIEL: We also have a lower table below that we usually talk about. Fry is vocal.
ELEMENT: This sounds (vocalizing).
DANIEL: We produce all these sounds by sending air through the vocal folds into the larynx. But this text flashes differently for each individual.
ELEMENT: In the vocal grid, your vocal folds are relaxed.
DANIEL: So they are thick and heavy.
ELEMENTS: And they vibrate at the lowest frequencies.
DANIEL: They tend to be long in the wrong register and are under a higher tension.
ELEMENTS: And this leads to the highest frequencies.
DANIEL: Elemans was wondering if he could play something similar in a toothed whale, like dolphins, orcas, whales, pilot of the lagoons, to allow everything to be produced from the whistle.
(SLOW ANIMAL NOISE)
DANIEL: …We’re teaming up with Flipper to break out the noise…
(BURSTING ANIMAL COLOR)
DANIEL: …To echo the clicks…
(Clicking animal sound)
DANIEL: … To look for food. Now, toothed whales have a larynx, but it does not produce sound. Rather…
ELEMENT: It has developed a new type of structure located in its nose that generates sounds, which are called phonic lips.
DANIEL: For decades, it’s been really difficult to observe vocal cords in action, but Elemans and his colleagues have done just that. They let down a small chamber on the shoals of a few captive dolphins and trained porpoises.
ELEMENTS: And we have shown that there is a certain movement of these while they are doing echolocation.
DANIEL: Then they worked with harbor porpoises that had died in the wild and saw that the vocal cords were not held by muscles.
ELEMENTS: Yes, like the human voice, they move through the airflow, and this is really similar.
DANIEL: Additional experiments have suggested that toothed whales likely have separate vocal folds, as we do, because they generate numerous sounds. The fry’s vocal cords are responsible for echolocation.
AGNESE LANZETTI: This is, in my opinion, the best research that shows how sounds are made mechanically and proves that sounds are generated from air.
DANIEL: University of Birmingham evolutionary biologist Agnese Lanzetti was not involved in the research. His point about the air is important because when an animal like a sperm whale shoots deep below the surface, his lung will collapse under the pressure. But within the bony structure of the nose, air can continue to circulate and power echolocation, says Coen Elemans.
ELEMENT: By moving all the air into the nostrils, these toothed whales can generate much higher pressures to propel the system. And with that, they can basically make the loudest sounds of any animal on the planet.
DANIEL: And rather, they feed themselves in the process, turning fried vocals into a fish fry. For NPR News, I’m Ari Daniel.
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