Imagine for a moment that you and your closest friends have ventured out into the deep woods to commune with nature and enjoy some well-earned peace and quiet away from the city. The birds are chirping, the wind is playing softly in the pine branches, and squirrels are rustling in the forest’s underbrush. It’s a magical moment in the wilderness … until an ear-piercing, spine-chilling shriek issues from just beyond the treeline. You spring to your feet and scan the forest for signs of an approaching Nazgûl, simultaneously checking your pockets for the One Ring. But then you realize that you’re no hobbit, you have no magic ring, and Ringwraiths do not exist. So what on Middle Earth made that blood-curdling scream?
Well, if you’re in elk territory, it’s probably one of the oversized deer that’s making all that awful racket. Also known as wapiti, these sizeable animals–they can weigh in between 500 and 730lbs–have puzzled scientists with their counter-intuitively high-pitched cries. But a new report in the Journal of Experimental Biology might just a provide an explanation that’s more pleasing to the ears.
Elk do in fact make a lower sound that’s more in keeping with its size, but it’s drowned out by that otherworldly bugle. Through anatomical and acoustical measurements, the researchers were able to determine that the high-pitched shriek is produced “as air flows rapidly through a narrow supraglottic constriction,” much like a whistle.
Go ahead and compare the elk’s bugle heard above to that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ringwraith shriek, as heard in The Lord of the Rings movies:
While it should come as good news that nature’s audio feedback originates in a fairly common animal rather than a fictional and near-deathless wraith, you should still be on your guard if you ever hear this awful, awful sound in the wild. Male elk appear to make this high-pitched whistle as a sexual call, announcing their presence to available female suitors and potential male rivals both near and far. No matter who receives the message, it’s not a situation you want to stick around for. The elk may not have evolved a Nazgûl-like cry as a warning for humans to stay away, but it’s effective just the same.
Images: New Line Cinema; MONGO