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Elks Belt Evil 'Lord of the Rings' Sound

Bull elks and sinister characters from “Lord of the Rings” both feature a multi-tonal call.

Bull elks produce a shrieking call that many have likened to the cries of sinister characters known as Ringwraiths in the "Lord of the Rings," and now new research shows how the animals produce this unusual sound.

The elks, also known as North American red deer or wapitis, manage to roar and whistle at the same time, resulting in the vocalization known as a bugle. The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Chimp Chat Recordings Reveal Wide Range of Sounds

Bugling bull elk:

click to play video

"Lord of the Rings" Ringwraiths (also called the Nazgûl or Dark Riders):

click to play video

An initial surprise upon hearing the elk's bugle is how high-pitched the sound is for such a big beast.

"Larger animals tend to have deeper resonances and lower voices," lead author David Reby from the University of Sussex explained in a press release.

The paradox has puzzled scientists for decades, so when Reby's colleague Megan Wyman returned from a trip recording deer bellows in New Zealand, Reby knew that they might have a chance to finally solve the mystery.

Photos: Dollar Value of Hunted African Animals

While studying these and other recordings of the animals, another stroke of good luck happened - at least for the researchers.

A member of the research team, Yann Locatelli, learned that a male elk in the herd at France's Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle had died. The natural death gave the scientists a chance to study the elk's anatomy underlying calls.

All of the analysis allowed the team to determine that elks whistle while simultaneously roaring through their vocal chords. The call includes an unnatural sounding, high-pitched shriek that reaches frequencies up to 4000 Hz.

Video: Elks on Trampolines: Why Animals Play

The high and low pitched sounds can shift independently. For example, sometimes the high-pitched wail rises and falls while the tone of the lower-pitched roar remains constant. The vocal folds vibrate and produce a call that matches the animal's size, while the bull simultaneously produces a high-pitched, high-volume, wraith-like cry by whistling.

Physicist Joel Gilbert, also on the research team, calculated how the air released by the bull might vibrate in the animal's oral cavity. He realized that the jet of air could hit the elk's soft palate (known as the velum) in much the same way that air in a flute vibrates.

Like a wind instrument musician, the process requires the elk to make some skillful mouth and other facial movements, too.

Reby and his team wrote, "The mouth is kept open during the vocalization, whereas the upper lips are curled upwards and the nostrils are moved backwards."

As for why the male elks go to such trouble to produce the sound, the authors speculate that these impressive animals have evolved such a dual-noise call "to advertise body size at close range while simultaneously advertising their presence over greater distances using the very high-amplitude whistle component."

A bull elk bugling.

The co-host of a hunting show on the Outdoor Channel recently spent $350,000 for the chance to hunt an endangered black rhinoceros in southern Africa. Corey Knowlton won the Dallas Safari Club's auction for a permit to hunt the rhino in Namibia. Knowlton says he and his family have received death threats after his name was made public through social media. "As much as I would love them all to live forever, they are going to die," Knowlton

told CNN

. "The older males are killing each other, and something has to be done about it."

Nearly any animal can be legally killed in many parts of Africa, so long as the hunter pays the right amount of money. For rare and endangered species, the cost can escalate to many thousands of U.S. dollars.

"National parks are obviously trying to make money," Johnny Rodrigues, Chairman for Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told Discovery News. "The hunters have to pay the parks if they want to shoot the animals."

It can be a Catch-22, since the parks often struggle to pay their staff, which include those who work to care for and protect the animals. The high price tag of a permit may serve as a deterrent, but it also reflects how much poachers can earn without even benefiting the parks.[/br

The payment needed to legally shoot an elephant drops to $50,000 in Zimbabwe, with a further loss of $10,000 if the elephant has no tusks. "The reason rhinos are more valuable than elephants is because the horn is so valuable and in such high demand by the Chinese," Rodrigues said.

$20,000 can allow hunters with appropriate permits to kill several rare animals in many parts of Africa. Leopards are on that list, even though The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists them as "threatened."

The price tag on lions is also $20,000. In terms of what happens to the dead animals, "As far as I know," Rodrigues said, "once the animals are hunted, they are exported to the hunter's home country." Upon arrival, the hunter may preserve the animal's dead body and put it on display.

The cost to legally hunt a cheetah in Zimbabwe is $20,000. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists them as "vulnerable," but further mentions that "the known cheetah population is approximately 7,500-10,000 adult animals." In 1975, the number of cheetahs in Africa was estimated at 15,000, revealing that this species has significantly declined in only three generations.

Majestic Roan antelopes also can be hunted for $20,000 in parts of Africa. While its population is more numerous than wild cats, this species has been eliminated from large parts of its former range, primarily due to poaching and habitat loss.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reports that sable antelopes possess "high value as a trophy animal."

Sometimes the cost to hunt an animal differs if the target is male or female. That is the case for African buffalos, since males have larger horns than females do. The horn size difference costs a hunter an extra two grand to shoot a male African buffalo.

A hunter must pay $5,000 to legally shoot a giraffe in Zimbabwe. The IUCN Red List reports that "a recent preliminary population estimate suggests a decline in the total population has taken place." While giraffes are currently listed as being animals of "least concern," that classification might soon change if the estimate is substantiated.

On the less expensive side of the scale are flamingos, which cost only $100 to legally hunt in Zimbabwe. The value of this and the other animals to conservationists and other animal lovers comes without a price tag, however. To them, the animals are priceless. Nevertheless, by putting a price on the heads of animals, some national parks in Africa earn money that helps to fuel their operations. The biggest problem is poachers, who receive relatively light sentences for their crimes.

Rodrigues explained, "The only thing a poacher would get if they trapped these animals is a jail sentence if they are caught."