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Oregon Coast Scientists Discover New Whale Sound in Faraway Mariana Trench

Published 12/18/2016 at 5:33 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Scientists based on the Oregon coast have helped make a new discovery about whale call

(Newport, Oregon) - Scientists based on the Oregon coast have helped make a new discovery about whale calls – a find which happened in the faraway Mariana Trench. (Photo courtesy Hatfield Marine Science Center: a dwarf minke whale).

Researchers from the Hatfield Marine Science Center out of Newport and Oregon State University in Corvallis came across a complex sound in this part of the world – known as the deepest point in any of Earth's oceans – made by baleen whales, and one which has a wide frequency range and is especially complex. It is essentially a new call made by the species.

Nicknaming it the “Western Pacific Biotwang,” it lasts between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds, and it contains five parts that include deep moans at frequencies as low as 38 hertz and a metallic finale that pushes as high as 8,000 hertz.

“It’s very distinct, with all these crazy parts,” said Sharon Nieukirk, senior faculty research assistant in marine bioacoustics at Oregon State. “The low-frequency moaning part is typical of baleen whales, and it’s that kind of twangy sound that makes it really unique. We don’t find many new baleen whale calls.”

Yet scientists are not quite sure from what kind of whale it comes from, although the standout possibility is that it's a minke whale. For one thing, the sound resembles the so-called “Star Wars” sound that is made by minke's off of northeast Australia, researchers said.

Nieukirk said the Western Pacific Biotwang has enough similarities to that Star Wars call to make it a good candidate. Both calls are complex in structure, have a large frequency sweep and then a metallic conclusion. Little is known about the minke at these lower depths, however, and this creature spends most of its time below the surface, more so than other whales.

“The species is the smallest of the baleen whales, doesn’t spend much time at the surface, has an inconspicuous blow, and often lives in areas where high seas make sighting difficult,” Nieukirk said. "But they call frequently, making them good candidates for acoustic studies.”

Recordings of these sounds were made via passive acoustic ocean gliders, which are scientific drones that can travel without human intervention for months at a time and have the ability to dive down to 1,000 meters.

This mix of Oregon coast and Corvallis scientists is also puzzled that since this is a baleen whale – meaning it takes in food through a filter called a baleen – most calls made by that species are in the course of mating. And most often in winter. Yet these calls are being heard year-round, making this a mystery, Nieukirk said.

The hope is that by publishing this data other scientists will be able to sift through their recordings and make more discoveries about the call's frequency during other times of the year and other aspects, thus better understanding this unique sound.

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