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The Navy's Deadly Obsession with Whales

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When Griffin learned that Harvard’s physics department had recently invented an ultrasonic sound detector, he hoped this new technology might be the key to unlocking Spallanzani’s “problem.” He constructed an elaborate maze of hanging wires in a blacked-out basement laboratory, which he then equipped with ultrasonic sound receivers. The bats successfully navigated the maze in total darkness, and the ultrasonic receivers enabled Griffin to record the squeaky clicks of their ultrahigh-frequency sound emissions. He deduced correctly that the bats were navigating by the echoes from their clicks, a method that he named “echolocation.” Griffin later demonstrated that bats also employed echolocation to hunt in the dark, using different frequency transmissions depending on the size of the insects they were hunting.

The Navy, always on the lookout for ways to improve its radar and sonar capabilities, immediately took an interest in Griffin’s findings. After the Office of Navy Research (ONR) began supporting his research into animal behavior, Griffin speculated that mammals other than bats might navigate by echolocation—notably, whales in the lightless ocean depths. This provocative supposition encouraged the Navy—in service to its antisubmarine warfare mission—to embark on a decades-long effort to confirm, describe, decode, and deploy cetacean biosonar.

Bats and whales, eh?



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