Researchers study beluga ears to learn more about impact of noise

A team of researchers is analyzing the ears of belugas caught near Tuktoyaktuk in order to to learn more about adaptations, and possible structural changes, caused by man-made noise, such as seismic testing or increased shipping in the Arctic Ocean.

Study aims to link loud noises to adaptations, structural changes

Marina Piscitelli takes a sample from a beluga caught near Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. (submitted by Marina Piscitelli)

A team of researchers is analyzing the ears of belugas caught near Tuktoyaktuk to learn more about adaptations and possible structural changes caused by man-made noise, such as seismic testing or increased shipping in the Arctic Ocean.

The researchers, led by Maria Morell of the University of British Columbia, have been analyzing the sensory cells inside the ears of 15 belugas that were caught off Hendrickson Island in 2014. The study has yet to be published, but preliminary findings were presented this week at the Inuvik Beluga Summit, which is bringing together hunters and researchers in the N.W.T.'s Beaufort-Delta region. 

Marina Piscitelli, a researcher who studies hair cells in beluga ears as part of Morell's team, said even loud gunshots used in harvesting damage the ears of belugas.

"Let's say a ship were to come by and cause a really loud noise," she said. "A high frequency noise would actually cause hair [cells] to be lost."

The goal of the research is to map what a healthy beluga ear looks like compared to one that's been exposed to loud noise.

Piscitelli said the research "will generate a direct link" so that they can distinguish effects caused by different frequency ranges "and based on the knowledge of what ships were in the area, associate it with a particular acoustic sound."

Seismic testing involves using airguns to emit loud sounds underwater in order to map the seafloor and potential resources within. Its use is controversial, particularly in the Arctic waters of the Davis Strait where the community of Clyde River and others have argued it would disturb or harm seals, whales and walrus locals depend on for food.

It's not clear when the results of the study will be published.