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"Star Wars" Sound Traced to Dwarf Minke Whales

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 30, 2005
 
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. (HREF="http://people.ucsc.edu/~jgedamke/VOC1.wav">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."

Seduction Song?

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."

Curious Whales

Gedamke discovered the sound while on the research vessel Undersea Explorer at the Great Barrier Reef. He was on the boat to study a population of dwarf minke whales known for their remarkable curiosity.

The boat conducts dwarf minke whale research in addition to a "swim with whales" program for tourists. The whales call the reef home from May to September. They fearlessly approach and circle boats—and snorkelers—for hours on end.

"Snorkeling off the back of the Undersea Explorer is often like being in a fishbowl with up to 20 or more whales. Here, there, left, right, in front, in back, below. Everywhere you look sometimes you can see whales," Gedamke said.

To identify the source of the Stars Wars sound, Gedamke set out a series of underwater microphones, or hydrophones, on the reef to record the sounds.

At the same time, Gedamke spoke into a microphone to record the location of the whales he saw from the deck of the boat.

Back in the lab, he analyzed the recordings. Sound travels outward from where it is produced, so when a whale made a sound, it would arrive at the closest hydrophone first, then at the others, depending on their locations.

By carefully measuring when the sound arrived at each hydrophone, Gedamke was able to pinpoint where the noise originated. He then compared the location of the noise to his the locations of the whales he had observed from the deck of the boat.

"Often the acoustic location I calculated and the visual location I described matched. When they did a number of times, I could confidently say that the dwarf minke whale was the source of this very unusual sound," he said.

Gedamke speculated in 2001 that the dwarf minke whales make the noise as part of their mating behavior. "I still believe it's related to mating and have been able to find further support for this based on the work that followed," he said.

Mellinger said Gedamke's association of the dwarf minke whales with the Star Wars sound is allowing researchers to find the whales in the wild and conduct more intensive studies. For example, Mellinger said, researchers are learning about the whales' habitat use, movements, and population size—all of which are important to know if the whales are to be protected.

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