Researchers from San Diego State University and the University of California used computer models to mimic the effects of underwater noise on an unusual whale species, and discovered a new pathway for sound. Advances in Finite Element Modeling (FEM), computed tomography (CT) scanning, and computer processing have made it possible to simulate the environment and anatomy of a Cuvier's beaked whale when a sonar signal is sent out or received by the whale.
This research is a catalyst for future research that could end years of speculation about the effects of underwater sound on marine mammals. FEM is a technique borrowed from engineering used, for example, to simulate the effect of an earthquake on a building. By inputting the exact geometry and physical properties of a building, the effect of forces such as an earthquake - or in this case, noise vibrations - can
be accurately predicted.
Since 1968, it has been believed that noise vibrations travel through the thin bony walls of toothed whales' lower jaw and onto the fat body attached to the ear complex. This research shows that the thin bony walls do not transmit the vibrations; rather, they enter through the throat and then pass to the bony ear complex via a unique fatty channel.