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Snapping shrimp may ring 'dinner bell' for gray whales off the Oregon coast

Snapping shrimp may ring 'dinner bell' for gray whales off the Oregon coast

Editor's note: The following story is adapted from the news article released by the American Geophysical Union on February 13, 2018.

PORTLAND — Scientists have for the first time captured the sounds of snapping shrimp off the Oregon coast and think the loud crackling from the snapping of their claws may serve as a dinner bell for eastern Pacific gray whales, according to new research by NOAA and Oregon State University presented here today. 

“Nobody was aware of any sign of snapping shrimp in Oregon nearshore waters ever – they are completely undocumented,” said Joe Haxel, a marine acoustics researcher at Oregon State University's Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies and NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Newport, Oregon who will present the findings Tuesday, February 13, at the 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting. “That was a surprise, and very interesting to us, because we found areas with our drifting recordings that were just chock full of these snapping shrimp sounds, and they're really loud.” 

Shrimp seen swimming near a rocky reef. Credit: OSU/GEMM Lab

Snapping shrimp are among the noisiest animals in the ocean. They produce a loud clicking noise when snapping their claws to stun or kill their prey. When enough shrimp snap at once, the din can be louder than the roar of a passenger jet flying overhead. 

Snapping shrimp are typically found in warm, shallow subtropical waters all over the world, but no one had yet detected them in the colder waters off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. But in 2016, ocean researchers deployed a drifting hydrophone – a microphone that records sound underwater – in the shallow waters off the Oregon coast. When they listened to the hydrophone recordings, they noticed something strange – loud popping, clacking sounds characteristic of snapping shrimp. When the researchers compared the recordings to known snapping shrimp sounds, they matched.   

In addition to discovering the presence of snapping shrimp, the researchers found eastern Pacific gray whales were often foraging near the rocky reefs the shrimp inhabit. 

Gray whales don’t eat snapping shrimp, but they do eat other crustaceans usually found near the rocky reefs. Haxel and his colleagues suspect the loud snaps and cracks could be an acoustic cue to direct whales to areas of the ocean where their typical food might be plentiful.   

“The ocean is really patchy with prey,” Haxel said. “But we're seeing that whales are more concentrated in these rocky reef areas that have kelp and other food sources where the snapping shrimp are also found. So that potentially could be kind of a dinner bell effect.” 

“Whales are very acoustic animals, so we assume that a lot of the cues they get about where food is located is based on sound,” said Leigh Torres, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University in Newport and collaborator on the research project. “The ocean is generally a very dark place, especially at night, but these whales feed around the clock. So when they can't see, either because they're in the deep ocean or because it's night, they must rely on other cues, and we think acoustic cues are a primary way of doing that.” 

The discovery is part of a larger effort by researchers to better understand the acoustic environment of Pacific Northwest coastal waters. By deploying the hydrophones, they hope to characterize the volume and types of sounds animals hear in Pacific Northwest waters. The new research shows snapping shrimp are an important contributor to the coastal soundscape, Haxel said. 

Please go online to hear audio captured on hydrophone of the snapping shrimp underwater.

For more information please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Research, at or 202-379-6693.

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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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