Whistling is metabolically cheap for communicating bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)

Michael B. Pedersen, Andreas Fahlman, Alicia Borque-Espinosa, Peter T. Madsen, Frants H. Jensen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Toothed whales depend on sound for communication and foraging, making them potentially vulnerable to acoustic masking from increasing anthropogenic noise. Masking effects may be ameliorated by higher amplitudes or rates of calling, but such acoustic compensation mechanisms may incur energetic costs if sound production is expensive. The costs of whistling in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been reported to be much higher (20% of resting metabolic rate, RMR) than theoretical predictions (0.5–1% of RMR). Here, we address this dichotomy by measuring the change in the resting O2 consumption rate (V O2), a proxy for RMR, in three post-absorptive bottlenose dolphins during whistling and silent trials, concurrent with simultaneous measurement of acoustic output using a calibrated hydrophone array. The experimental protocol consisted of a 2-min baseline period to establish RMR, followed by a 2-min voluntary resting surface apnea, with or without whistling as cued by the trainers, and then a 5-min resting period to measure recovery costs. Daily fluctuations in V O2 were accounted for by subtracting the baseline RMR from the recovery costs to estimate the cost of apnea with and without whistles relative to RMR. Analysis of 52 sessions containing 1162 whistles showed that whistling did not increase metabolic cost (P>0.1, +4.2±6.9%) as compared with control trials (−0.5±5.9%; means±s.e.m.). Thus, we reject the hypothesis that whistling is costly for bottlenose dolphins, and conclude that vocal adjustments such as the Lombard response to noise do not represent large direct energetic costs for communicating toothed whales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberjeb212498
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Acoustic communication
  • Respiratory physiology
  • Sound production
  • Toothed whales
  • Underwater noise
  • Vocal modifications

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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