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December 20, 2016

Earlier this year, scientists were searching for the source of sounds coming from the Mariana Trench, one of the deepest parts of the oceans between Japan and Australia. Now, they've got an idea as to what those noises may have been, and the hunch isn't surprising at all.

A group of researchers from Oregon State University reported that sound was likely a new whale call from the minke whale. To capture the 2.5- to 3.5-second calls, researchers used passive acoustic ocean gliders, or tools that have the ability to travel for months autonomously and dive up to 1,000 meters. The sounds they gathered most closely resembled what they call the “Star Wars” sound of minke whales in the Great Barrier Reef off of northeast Australia.

These whales are some of the smallest members of the baleen whale family and spend very little time at the water's surface, according to the American Cetacean Society.

A statement from Oregon State goes more in-depth on the different qualities of the song: “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.”

The researchers have dubbed this newcomer the “Western Pacific Biotwang”—if Biotwang isn't the perfect name for a whale band, I don't know what is.

They do have their doubts, as the researchers admittedly don't know much about low-latititude minke whales. The first thought would be that this is some sort of mating call, but the news release goes on to explain that these sounds were being heard year round and not just during the winter mating season.

“Now that we’ve published these data, we hope researchers can identify this call in past and future data, and ultimately we should be able to pin down the source of the sound,” Nieukirk said in a statement. “Our hope is to mount an expedition to go out and do acoustic localization, find the animals, get biopsy samples and find out exactly what’s making the sound. It really is an amazing, weird sound, and good science will explain it.”

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