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ESR prepress abstract   -  DOI:

Underwater hearing and communication in the endangered Hawaiian monk seal Neomonachus schauinslandi

Jillian M. Sills*, Kirby Parnell, Brandi Ruscher, Chloe Lew, Traci L. Kendall, Colleen Reichmuth

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Hawaiian monk seals are among the most endangered marine mammals and the most basal of the phocid seals. The auditory biology of monk seals is compelling from behavioral, evolutionary, and conservation perspectives, but we presently lack substantive bioacoustic information for this species, with no formal descriptions of underwater vocalizations and limited data concerning hearing. These seals have been isolated for more than 10 million years and have auditory structures differing from those of related species. Additionally, unlike other aquatically mating phocids, monk seals breed asynchronously and are not known to produce social calls in water. To address existing knowledge gaps, we trained a mature male Hawaiian monk seal to perform a psychophysical task while submerged. Detection thresholds were measured for narrowband sounds across the frequency range of hearing. We also conducted a year-round characterization of the seal’s spontaneous underwater vocalizations. This individual demonstrated best hearing between 0.2 and 33 kHz, with a lower high-frequency roll-off than that of related species. Hearing at all frequencies was less sensitive than in other true seals. Despite the absence of conspecifics, the seal regularly produced 6 different underwater calls with energy below 1 kHz. Calling patterns reflected a period of annual reproductive activity lasting about 6 months, coincident with elevated testosterone levels. This study presents the first examination of underwater vocalizations in Hawaiian monk seals, provides insight into the auditory abilities of this species and the evolution of underwater hearing among phocids, and enables improved assessments of noise effects on these vulnerable seals.