Planet Earth

The Whale that Goes


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by Sarah C. Greene

A twangy, guitarlike sound from the depths of Australia's Great Barrier Reef has puzzled scientists and naval personnel for 15 years. Now marine biologist Jason Gedamke, working with a team from the University of California at Santa Cruz, has pinned the noise on the poorly understood dwarf minke whale.

With help from the Undersea Explorer, an Australian research vessel, Gedamke and his colleagues recorded 92 hours of sounds from dwarf minkes off the Australian coast. The boings and blings sounded so metallic that the scientists initially couldn't believe they came from whales; Gedamke describes the tones as "Star Wars vocalization." He suspects males sing to stake out acoustic territory, both to attract females and to ward off the competition, but he is just beginning to analyze these songs of the deep.

At 25 feet long, the adult dwarf minke is the second smallest baleen whale.Photograph courtesy of University of California, Santa Cruz

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