Mathematicians under the sea: Studying echolocation skills of dolphins could unlock advances in sonar technology

Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor John R. Buck and students collaborate with Saint Mary’s College (Notre Dame) and University of Hawaii researchers to better understand ‘sonar secret’ of bottlenose dolphins

Dr. Buck and his students collaborated with researchers at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana and University of Hawaii to unlock this “sonar secret".

Bottlenose dolphins are masters of echolocation. Scientists have argued that using just sound, they can detect a ping-pong ball sized object from 100 meters away. Surprisingly, bottlenose dolphins do not actually aim their sonar beam at the intended target. They are found to instead direct the beam to the side of the target they are most interested in.

UMass Dartmouth Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor John R. Buck and his students have collaborated with researchers at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana and University of Hawaii to unlock this “sonar secret” and what lessons it could offer toward improving sonar technology.

“We joke that they’re the ultimate mathematicians, because they’re doing a strategy that analytically is the most optimal strategy,” Saint Mary’s College Assistant Biology Professor Dr. Laura N. Kloepper said. “Mankind has so much to learn about our own technological sonar from studying the animals. They have it figured out and have had it figured it out for millions of years.”

While it may sound counter-intuitive, researchers points to this strategy as the most mathematically optimal. This off-the-mark strategy used by bottleneck dolphins achieves the same levels of performance or better than man-made sonar devices.

“It’s like if you imagine you’re listening to an orchestra,” Dr. Buck noted. “As you move away from the location, the high frequency instruments, like the piccolo and the violins, gradually get filtered out until you're left with the tubas and the double basses over there on the side. If you’re trying to decide what direction the sound came from based on what frequencies are present, the animals would have a sweet spot based on where it changes the most.”

The research team presented their findings at a recent Acoustical Society of America meeting held in Jacksonville, Florida. Dr. Kloepper was a Visiting Scholar in the UMass Dartmouth Electrical and Computer Engineering Department's Department's Signal Processing Group from 2012-2015. PhD student Yang Liu and graduate student Colin Ryan also participated in the project. Drs. Buck and Kloepper were featured on Inside Science TVdiscussing their latest collaborative effort.


Research, College of Engineering