Scientists listen in on narwhals and discover they sound like chainsaws

What does the mysterious narwhal say? Bzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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Researchers traveled with Inuit hunters near Bowdoin Glacier in Greenland to gather acoustic data on narwhal sounds.

Evgeny Podolskiy

Narwhals, the unicorns of the sea, are almost as mysterious as their mythical counterparts. But now we know a lot more about what they sound like when they're doing their thing underwater.

A team of geophysicists led by Evgeny Podolskiy from Hokkaido University in Japan rode along with Inuit hunters to record narwhal calls and sounds in a Greenland fjord. The whales make a fascinating collection of clicking, whistling and buzzing noises. 

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) described the animals as "notoriously shy and skittish." The researchers published a study on the narwhal sounds in the AGU's Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans on Tuesday.

Podolskiy's main study area is the sounds of glaciers. "I realized working in the area and not paying attention to the elephant in the room -- the key endemic legendary Arctic unicorn just flowing around our glacier -- was a big mistake," he said

The elusive animals use whistles for social conversations and clicks for navigation and hunting. "The closer narwhals get to their food, the faster they click, until the noise becomes a buzz not unlike that of a chainsaw," the AGU said. "This terminal buzz helps the narwhals pinpoint the location of their prey."

The soundscape produced by narwhals is giving researchers new insights into their summertime feeding behaviors. It also shows that the whales have a daredevil streak as they swim close to glaciers that are in the process of releasing icebergs. 

The catalog of narwhal noises adds to a growing understanding of these enigmatic animals. Scientists recently looked into the advantages for narwhals with big tusks

While most of us will never encounter a narwhal in the wild, we can live vicariously through the scientists' recordings. Narwhal chatter may sound quite different from the more familiar soaring songs of humpback whales, but it's plenty charming in its own right.

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