Listen to part of a lecture in a marine biology class.
We have been talking about how sea animals find their way underwater, how they navigate, and this brings up an interesting puzzle, and one I'm sure you'll all enjoy.
I mean, everybody loves dolphins, right?
And dolphins, well, they actually produce two types of sounds.
Uh, one being the vocalizations you are probably all familiar with, which they emit through their blowholes.
But the one we are concerned with today is the rapid clicks that they use for echolocation, so they can sense what is around them.
These sounds, it has been found, are produced in the air-filled nasal sacs of the dolphin.
And the puzzle is how do the click sounds get transmitted into the water?
It's not as easy as it might seem.
You see, the denser the medium, the faster sound travels.
So sound travels faster through water than it does through air.
So what happens when a sound wave um... OK.
You've got a sound wave traveling merely along through one medium, when suddenly, it hits a different medium, what does gonna happen then?
Well, some of the energy is going to be reflected back, and some of it is going to be transmitted into the second medium.
And... and... and if the two media have really different densities, like air and water, then most of the energy is going to be reflected back, very little of it will keep going, uh, get transmitted into the new medium.
I mean, just think how little noise from the outside world actually reaches you when your head is underwater.
So, how did the dolphin's clicks get transmitted from its air-filled nasal sacs into the ocean water?
Because given the difference in density between the air in the nasal cavity and the seawater, we'd expect those sounds to just kind of go bouncing around inside the dolphin's head, which will do it no good at all.
If it's going to navigate , it needs those sounds to be broadcasted and bounced back from objects in its path.
Well, turns out dolphins have a structure in their foreheads, just in front of their nasal sacs, called a melon.
Now, the melon is kind of a large sac-like pouch, made up of fat tissue.
And this fat tissue has some rather fascinating acoustical properties.
Most of the fat that you find in an animal's body is used for storing energy, but this fat, which you find in dolphins, and only in the melon and around the lower jaw.
This fat is very different, very rich in oil.
And it turns out it has a very different purpose as well.
Now, one way to overcome this mismatch in the density of air and water would be... if you could, um, modify the velocity of the sound wave, make it precisely match the speed at which sound travels through water.
And that's exactly what marine biologists have discovered the melon does.
Note that the bursa, these little projections at the rear of the melon, are right up against the air-filled nasal sacs.
And these bursa, it turns out, are what's responsible for transferring sound to the melon.
The sound waves are then transmitted by the bursa through the melon, first through a low velocity core, and then through a high velocity shell, where their speed is increased before they are transmitted into the surrounding seawater.
So now the signals can be efficiently transferred into the water, with minimal reflection.
The only other place, this special fatty tissue, like that in the melon, the only other place is found in the dolphin, is in the lower jaw.
Turns out that the lower jaw, well, it is made of a specially thin bone.
And it is very sensitive to vibrations, to sound energy traveling through the seawater.
It turns out that the jaw is primarily responsible for capturing and transferring returning sound waves to the dolphin's inner ear.
So these rapid clicks that are sent out bounce off objects, maybe a group of fish swimming over here, a boat coming from over there.
The sounds bounce off them and the lower jaw captures the returning sounds, making it possible for the dolphin to sense what's in the surrounding water and decide where to swim.