Mating Fish May Be The Source Of Mysterious Hum Plaguing UK Town

By Josh Lieberman on October 24, 2013 6:15 PM EDT

midshipman fish
The low-frequency mating call of the male midshipman fish may be behind the mysterious hum heard in Hythe, England, since August. Some residents say the sound is so bad that it keeps them up at night. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Residents of the southern England town of Hythe, Hampshire, have been complaining about a mysterious humming sound since August. One resident told the BBC that the hum is "a pulsing, vibrating sort of sound, like a turbine....It sounds ridiculous but it does keep you awake all night." The hum is so bad that some residents have to leave town at night if they want to get some decent sleep. No one knows exactly what's causing the hum, but one theory is that it's caused by male midshipman fish trying to attract a mate and intimidate other males.

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"It's not beyond the realms of possibility," Ben Wilson of the Scottish Association for Marine Science told the Telegraph. "There are certainly 'sonic fish' in the north Atlantic and the approaches to the English Channel."

The sound that midshipman fish make has a very low frequency and a long wavelength, and is able to resonate through the ground and the walls of homes. (Listen to the midshipman fish's amorous call here.) And because midshipman fish are nocturnal, sleep-deprived residents of Hythe are particularly unlucky.  

Andy Bass, a Cornell Univeristy biologist who has made recordings of the fish, told NPR in 2009 about his experiences studying midshipman fish.

"They have an air-filled bladder known as a swim bladder that most fishes use to change their position in the water column, but many fish have secondarily adapted this organ for sound production," said Bass. "And it goes on for hours. And it's just incredible to listen to. We're sitting there with earphones clipped to our heads listening to these fish all night making these growls and hums and grunts."

This isn't the first time midshipman fish have been blamed for keeping people up. Last year, in Seattle, Wash., residents started complaining about the same sort of hum currently afflicting residents of Hythe. The hum was heard in West Seattle, near the water, with the hulls of ships possibly acting as subwoofers which carried the sound for miles.

Hopefully restless sleep caused by the midshipman hum isn't increasing relationship stress in Hythe couples. 

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