It looks like the lyre bird and its futuristic laser sounds might finally have a challenger: the dwarf minke whale. These lesser-known leviathans might not have vocal chords, but they somehow manage to produce a blaster-like "da-da-da-daaaang", aptly known as the "Star Wars sound".

Bioacoustics expert Dr Dave Mellinger explains that despite years of study, we still don't really know how these marine mammals make the noise. (What we do know is that minke whales were clearly involved in the production of this 1990s hit).

The Star Wars sound has been recognised for over 20 years, but it wasn't until 2001, when NOAA Cetacean Sound Mapping director Dr Jason Gedamke and his team dropped a hydrophone array into Australian waters, that we had confirmation it belonged to the dwarf whales.

"It's surprisingly loud and complex, and sounds like it's produced mechanically or synthetically," he told the University of California Santa Cruz. "When I first heard it, I couldn't believe it came from a whale."

The noise was so strange, in fact, that before the study, several whale experts suggested he check in with the Australian Navy to find out if the sound could be traced back to one of its submarines. 

"Minke whales appear to use this sound to space themselves out," adds Mellinger. "They appear to move away from nearby males they hear." 

Similar "advertisements" have been observed in other rorqual (filter-feeding) whales, like humpbacks. But when it comes to style, this call stands apart. 

"When you hear that sound, you know it's a minke whale, so we can use it to study their distribution, track their movements, and see how vocalising animals are interacting with one another," adds Gedamke.

Little is known about these "dwarf" whales, which can reach lengths of up to eight metres (26ft) – their population numbers, migratory patterns and the location of their birthing grounds remain a mystery. And unlike their bigger cousins whose blow is visible from far away, dwarf minke whales don't make much of a splash, so even spotting them in the open ocean can be a challenge.

And that means anything that helps us track and understand the whales' movements – including the sounds of a blaster fight – is crucial in learning how better to protect them. 


Top header image: jtweedie1976, Flickr