Science & Environment
1:59 pm
Thu March 20, 2014

Minke Sounds Like No Whale You've Ever Heard

Mouth of a minke whale with distinct grooves in its throat.
Mouth of a minke whale with distinct grooves in its throat.
Credit Denise Risch / NEFSC/NOAA

Humans speak thousands of languages. Why not whales?

Our perceptions of whale vocalizations have been heavily influenced by high-profile and frequently-studied species, like the humpback whale.  Humpbacks' songs were among the first whale vocalizations recorded and have found their way into popular culture through records and movies. 

After watching Finding Nemo, my kids spent weeks "speaking whale."  It basically sounded like someone playing a vinyl record at variable speed.  And for a humpback, they weren't too far off:

In recent years, New Englanders, in particular, may also have become acquainted with the calls of the North Atlantic right whale:

But minke (pronounced mink-y) whales sound nothing like either of these. Take a listen:

Why haven't we heard more about - and from - minkes?

For one, minke whales are hard to keep up with. They're the smallest of what are known as the rorquals, a group of whales typified by smooth, streamlined bodies with pointed head and fins. Minkes can reach swimming speeds in excess of 20 mph, so placing research tags on minkes hasn't worked well.

Researchers at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, led by Denise Risch, have been taking a different approach.  In 2007, they placed underwater microphones on the sea floor in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.  Those listening devices have tracked 18 minke whales and led to the identification of seven distinct types of calls, or pulse trains.  But there are still plenty of unknowns.

“Although we regularly observe minke whales in our Gulf of Maine surveys, we know very little about minke whale vocalizations and how they use sound in their behavioral and social interactions,” said Risch.

Risch and her colleagues are trying to understand which whales use which types of calls and under what circumstances. You can read more here.

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