Marine petroleum exploration involves the repetitive use of high-energy noise sources, air-guns, that produce a short, sharp, low-frequency sound. Despite reports of behavioral responses of fishes and marine mammals to such noise, it is not known whether exposure to air-guns has the potential to damage the ears of aquatic vertebrates. It is shown here that the ears of fish exposed to an operating air-gun sustained extensive damage to their sensory epithelia that was apparent as ablated hair cells. The damage was regionally severe, with no evidence of repair or replacement of damaged sensory cells up to 58 days after air-gun exposure.

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