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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Western Pacific Biotwang: Whale Noises in Deepest Mariana Trench

     An unusual noise that was recorded near the Mariana Trench could be a never-before-heard whale call.

     Called the "Western Pacific Biotwang," this newly discovered call might be from a minke whale, a type of baleen whale, according to the researchers who documented the vocalization. A baleen whale has plates of whalebone in the mouth for straining plankton from the water. 

      The Mariana Trench stretches 1,500 mi (2500 km) in an arc that is edged by the islands of Guam and Saipan. Its deepest point is known as the Challenger Deep, some 35,756 feet (10,890 m) — or nearly 7 miles (11 km) — beneath the surface of the sea. The trench is deeper than Mount Everest is tall.

     Lasting between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds, the five-part call includes deep moans at frequencies as low as 38 hertz and a metallic finale that pulses as high as 8,000 hertz.

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

      Recorded via passive acoustic ocean gliders, which are instruments that can travel autonomously for months at a time and dive up to 1,000 meters, the Western Pacific Biotwang most closely resembles the so-called “Star Wars” sound produced by dwarf minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast of Australia, researchers say.

          This article describes a recording of the new Western Pacific Biotwang. You may hear the 1 minute Biotwang here.

           "We don't really know that much about minke whale distribution at low latitudes," Dr. Nieukirk said. "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. But they call frequently, making them good candidates for acoustic studies."

      "The call still needs to be translated. Most baleen whales use specific vocalizations for seasonal breeding and feeding, but this call — since it seems to occur all year — may have a complex function," the researchers said.

Biotwang, Biotwang, Biotwang--what a fun word to say!


  1. Nice that nature continues to surprise, and in a positive way. Nice that people don't wear mink(e) coats any more.

    But I couldn't find the link to the audio in the article, any help? I suspect the whales are re-enacting Irving Berlin's "Any note you can sing I can sing higher"....

    1. I couldn't find it there, either, but I found it here.

    2. Thanks, Paul, for that minke link above. And thanks, too, for the link over at Blaine's.

      It's surely no "competition" for Heavy Metal, even if the end of the whale's call is described as a metallic finale.

      Here's some humpback calls, in case you feel like baleen on the others.

    3. Humpbacks seem easier to sample: Judy Collins, Paul Winter, Kate Bush, and probably many others.

      In another spectrum, maybe you'd like this song; wild guess is it's the only song with Argyresthiidae in the lyrics.

    4. eco, thanks, I did enjoy the Cocteau Twins and the ethereal butterfly music.

  2. The call "deep moans at frequencies as low as 38 hertz and a metallic finale that pulses as high as 8,000 hertz."

    And I was impressed with Minnie Riperton's mere 5-octave range!
    "Riperton had a coloratura soprano vocal range. Aside from her various hits, she is perhaps best remembered today for her ability to sing in the whistle register, in which she had rare facility. Riperton's vocal range spanned five octaves."

    Minnie's daughter is former SNLer Maya Rudolph... which is fitting for this present season.


    1. Lego, thanks for the link to Riperton's and Rudolph's work. I didn't know they were related.

      I have been listening to Abigail Washington" this morning.

    2. Lego, you are forever on my list of scorn for reviving Riperton's "Lovin' You" in my head, breaking many happy decades of not thinking of that song.

      Apologies if you're a fan.

    3. Thanks, eco, for writing what I was thinking. Riperton's high notes make me think I am part dog; they make me howl and cover my ears.

      Similar apologies to her fans. Are you one, Lego?

  3. Is there a connection implied between the depth of the Mariana Trench and the odd whale vocalization? The glider only dove to a depth of 1000 meters, not much compared the the ocean floor there. How deep to Minke whales dive? Wikipedia says they hold their breath and deep dive for 2 to 20 minutes, so it's clear they're not plumbing the deepest parts of the Trench. Do they vocalize when they're deep down? How does the increased pressure in their lungs at great depth change the acoustics?

    1. jan, great questions. The deepest dive of a minke whale recorded in 1979 near Scotland is 470 meters. That seems to indicate the depth of the Mariana Trenchmay well be relatively insignificant to the minke calls there. However, the minke dive depth at the Mariana Trench have not yet been recorded.

      Is there some "pinging" of sounds off the deep? It would seem the increased lung pressure would have an acoustical affect, but I am not sure what.

      Why would minkes dive deeply? Food sources would seem to be much shallower. Is it simply fun play?

    2. Assuming depth does alter the sound in a manner perceptible to the intended audience, could it be a way of "showing off"?

    3. That's deep, Paul.

      Sure, "showing off" makes sense like cliff divers diving from ever higher cliffs. . .

      What I also do wonder about is how the Marianas Trench lost the 's' to become the Mariana Trench.

  4. James Cameron noted the deepest whale he observed at 8700 feet (2652 meters) during his 2012 dive into the Trench. No word if he wore a Trench coat, though.

  5. New post on "Eat, Prey, Swim: Baby Starfish Spin Miniature Whirlpools To Scoop Up Food" is now up.