School of Natural and Environmental Sciences


Joint Xiamen-Newcastle Dolphin Acoustic Research Programme

Figure 1. Computed Tomography scanned head parts of a finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) maternal body (left) and its fetus (right). Song, Zh


Marine bioacoustics is an emerging inter-disciplinary research field combining marine acoustics, marine biology, bionics and informatics that has shown important applications in underwater bio-sonar technology, signal processing and marine animal communication. Dolphins and other toothed whales (odontocetes) possess a highly sophisticated bio-sonar system which plays an important role in their navigation, prey detection, predator avoidance and communication.

The basic structures involved in the odontocete sound production (e.g. phonic lips, cranial air sacs and the melon) have been described from research of the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). However, few other species have been studied and the hypotheses regarding sound production and dolphin sonar still need experimental support to fully understand the structures involved and their respective function when producing the different sounds and frequencies. In addition, human generated noise from offshore construction (e.g. pile driving and drilling), wind and current generators, naval sonar, shipping and other anthropogenic activities have increased in the past decades and represent threats that may have both individual and population level effects on sound producing marine mammals. Therefore, studies investigating how odontocete bio-sonar may be affected by environmental and anthropogenic factors are important for future conservation and management efforts to safeguard marine mammals and in particular cetacean populations.

The objective of this joint research collaboration between Newcastle University and Xiamen University is to make significant impact in both basic and applied science of dolphin bio-sonar mechanisms in relation to anthropogenic and environmental effects.

The collaboration includes four projects:

1) Biomedical imaging (CT/MRI) to document acoustic characteristics of sound production tissues in dolphins

The Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin from Xiamen coastal waters and the white-beaked dolphin from Northumberland coastal waters will be used as study species based on dead specimens retrieved from stranding's and fisheries bycatch. Computed Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanning will be conducted on a selection of dolphin heads to generate 3-D images and to determine properties of the tissues and organs involved in sound production. Using CT imaging, internal structures of the study specimens will be reconstructed from multiple projections formed by scanning thin cross sections of the heads with a narrow x-ray beam (Fig.1). The following sub-projects will be investigated:

2) Physical properties of the tissues involved in dolphin sound production and sound reception

Sound velocity measurements of the dolphins’ forehead tissues will be performed using an ultrasound velometer. This requires knowledge of the tissues’ densities which will be estimated from CT scanning combined with mass and volume measurements. Based on the experiments the physical properties, sound velocity and density, of the dolphins’ sound production and receiving tissues will be explored as follows:

3) Model the ultrasound beam formation and echolocation of dolphin bio-sonar by using finite element simulations

The CT and MRI data will be used in computer simulations to further the understanding of the bio-sonar of odontocete cetaceans. Using scanned data, geometry models of the dolphins’ heads will be constructed and full-wave finite element simulations will be applied to numerically solve the acoustic fields in the head models. Following sub-projects will be investigated:

4) Anthropogenic noise impact on dolphin sound production and acoustic behaviour

Sound files of echolocating wild Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in coastal waters off Xiamen and white-beaked dolphins off the Northumberland coast, UK, will be collected using autonomous sound recorders (SoundTrap, These recorders have a very wide frequency range and very high sampling rate making them ideal to simultaneously record high frequency dolphin echolocation signals and lower frequency noise sound from anthropogenic activities. The anthropogenic activities that may generate noise at the deployment sites will be monitored by conducting visual ship surveys. By linking these data to the sound recordings it will be possible to evaluate what anthropogenic activity that has generated the recorded noise. The surveys will be conducted using the Xiamen and Newcastle University research vessels in the respective study areas.

The following sub-projects will be investigated: