for National Geographic News
Ever since Luke Skywalker fired up his lightsaber, the sounds of Star Wars movies have been mimicked by battling boys the world over. Now, a scientist believes male dwarf minke whales may make a sci-fi sound to attract females. (Hear the sound.)
In 2001 ocean scientist Jason Gedamke discovered that dwarf minke whales are the source of a mysterious ba-ba-boinnnngggg noise that scientists have heard in the oceans for more than 25 years.
The sound is like a mix between beating on an oil drum and firing a laser gun, Gedamke said. When he initially heard the reverberation while he was on a boat off Australia, he called it the Star Wars sound. The name stuck.
"The very first time I heard it, I didn't believe it could possibly be from a whale, because it sounded so absurd," he said. "I thought it must have been something from the ship."
Since identifying the dwarf minke whales as the futuristic noise's makers, Gedamke has continued to study and track the whales. His research suggests that they make the Star Wars sound to maintain space between each other.
"This is entirely consistent with the theory that this song is a male reproductive display, where males advertise to compete with other males and attract females," he said.
The scientist, who is currently working at the Australian Antarctic Division in Tasmania, is preparing to publish results on this analysis.
David Mellinger is an expert in whale-sound analysis at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. He agreed male dwarf minke whales most likely make the sound to attract females.
"Males of many species make advertisement sounds that are intended to attract females and drive away competing males," he said.
Mellinger added that advertisement sounds are distinct from courtship calls, which males and females make after they find each other.
"These raise and coordinate arousal levels of the male and female during the courtship ritual, so they're both ready at the same time for the big event," he said. "I think the Star Wars sound is more likely an advertisement sound, rather than a courtship sound."
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