1. Nature’s tape-recorder
Which animal should top our list of animal vocalists? Surely one that can produce just about any sound it likes! Meet the superb lyrebird (that's right, the 'superb' bit is actually part of its name). This little avian dynamo is possibly the earth’s most talented mimic, imitating anything from the songs of other birds to car alarms and camera shutters (usually to impress females). In a rather bitter twist of fate, these copycat skills are also allowing the birds to record more troubling sounds – like the whines of approaching chainsaws that are destroying their forested habitat.
2. A bark worse than its bite?
Pirhanas. If those voracious little flesh-eaters could talk, what might they say? It turns out their bad-tempered vocab complements those rather unfriendly features. Using a hydrophone (an underwater microphone), researchers have recorded a hostile repertoire of pirhana vocalisations (including barks and drumbeats made by gnashing teeth) – all of them accompaniments to the piranhas' daily routines of intimidation, discord, violent pursuit and outright combat.
3. Small, furry, cute … and as loud as a cow
As far as marsupial voice boxes go, the koala is king – especially during mating season. Thanks to the special structure of their larynx, these cute, furry marsupials can produce sounds loud enough to rival those made by a one-tonne bovine. And it’s a good thing male koalas are so vocally gifted – their potential mates are partial to a deep, resonant bellow. In fact, in the world of the koala, procreative success practically hinges on your ability to 'holla' since females choose only the loudest contenders.
4. A yip, a yowl and a stutter
A lightning-fast specialist predator like the cheetah should have a war cry to match – a respectable growl at the very least. Which is why the cheetah makes our list of surprising vocalizations. It doesn’t growl; it chirps. The chirping comes in handy when the cats want to locate one another; when danger approaches, they throw in a high-pitched yowl. But the oddest tool in the cheetah’s rather underwhelming vocal repertoire must be the stutter – a very special sound males make to literally trigger female ovulation.
5. A song straight from the
Who could resist the pull of a mating song straight from the swim bladder of a plainfin midshipman? Also known as a toadfish, this misshapen inhabitant of the muddy ocean bottom is capable of producing sounds despite the absence of vocal chords. Instead, its humble (but instructive) grunts and hoots are generated by vibrating an air-filled sac known as a swim bladder (using some of the fastest muscles in the animal kingdom). The result? A call to spawn like no other. Click here to listen.