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Submariners’ 'bio-duck' is probably a whale

Acoustic tags suggest Antarctic minke is source of mysterious sounds

7:02pm, April 22, 2014

TAGGED  One of the first two sound-recording tags (small, green device) ever to go for a ride on an Antarctic minke whale stays attached by suction cup for hours. The tag’s recording may have solved a long-standing acoustic mystery.

It quacks like a duck, sort of. But the mystery creature of the Antarctic is more likely a whale.

Submariners in the 1960s recorded strings of quick heartbeatlike pulses and nicknamed the unknown source a “bio-duck.” Whatever it is sounds off mostly in winter and spring in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica and the waters off Western Australia.

The sound is “way too loud for a fish,” says marine biologist Denise Risch of Integrated Statistics in Falmouth, Mass. Listeners have proposed sources from military hardware to marine mammals such as minke whales.

Very little is known about these whales’ vocalizations; researchers have identified only a few of the various minke species’ sounds, including a “boing” and what’s called a “Star Wars” vocalization. In 2013, researchers for the first time placed acoustic tags on the Antarctic minke (Balaenoptera bonaerensis). Tags from two whales recorded some sounds already linked to the species.

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