Measurement and Response Characteristics of Auditory Brainstem Responses in Pinnipeds

Abstract: The measurement of auditory evoked potentials (AEPs) has proven to be a useful tool for examining the auditory physiology of odontocete cetaceans and there is growing interest in applying this electrophysiological approach to study the hearing of other marine mammals. The aim of the current investigation was to examine some of the basic measurement and response characteristics of the auditory brainstem response (ABR) in pinnipeds. The subjects were California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), and northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) that were awake, sedated, or anesthetized during in-air testing. Auditory stimuli were broadband clicks and Hanning-gated tone bursts that were presented binaurally in a direct field. The amplitude and waveform of the ABRs were evaluated as a function of subject state, electrode type and position, analog bandpass filtering, stimulus presentation rate, and stimulus bandwidth. Results indicate that the ABRs were of highest amplitude when measured from subdermal electrodes arranged in a common reference configuration, with the cephalic electrode placed 2 to 4 cm forward of the ears on the dorsal midline of the head. The ABR waveforms were generally similar among the species tested, although the amplitude of the elephant seal ABR was much smaller than that of the other two species at similar stimulus levels. Band-pass filtering of the ABR resulted in improved signal-to-noise ratios but also caused reduction in response amplitude and distortion of the ABR waveform at high-pass settings above 65 Hz. Five-cycle tone bursts provided the best tradeoff between response amplitude and frequency specificity. The amplitude of ABRs evoked by clicks and tone bursts as a function of stimulus level was approximately linear for California sea lions and harbor seals over a range of ~25 dB. Visually estimated thresholds for California sea lions were noise limited but were sensitive enough to show hearing loss in one older subject. These findings should inform future research efforts involving electrophysiological assessment of auditory function, hearing sensitivity, and noise impacts in pinnipeds.

Key Words: California sea lion, Zalophus californianus, harbor seal, Phoca vitulina, northern elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris, pinniped, hearing, electrophysiology, auditory brainstem response

Document Type: research article

DOI: 10.1578/AM.33.1.2007.132

Page Numbers: 132 – 150

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