Humpback Whale Songs Follow Ocean Top Music Charts

Apr 18th, 2011 | By | Category: Science and Nature

Humpback whales follow their own musical trends, according to a study published in the April 12, 2011 issue of Current Biology. Scientists studying whale songs have found that all humpbacks in the South Pacific follow song trends that start in Australia and change every year or two.

Male humpback whales use their large nasal cavities to produce songs. The songs are among the most complex known songs in the animal kingdom, arranged in a hierarchy of notes, sub-phrases, phrases, and themes with variations in amplitude and frequency. The songs last 10 to 20 minutes and are repeated for hours at a time.

Male humpbacks sing only during the mating period, only on calving grounds, and often while escorting female humpbacks. This leads scientists to believe the songs are related to mating behavior.

S9 Humpback whale Humpback Whale Songs Follow Ocean Top Music Charts

Humpbacks breed in tropical and subtropical waters during the winter, and migrate to polar waters to feed during the summer. Their songs travel with them.

All humpbacks in the same region sing nearly the same song. All North Atlantic humpbacks sing one song, while all North Pacific humpbacks sing a different song.

But the popular song varies slightly from one whale composer to the next. Each male whale sings nearly the same song as the other, but with a slight variation. Scientists believe this a contest, designed either to impress females or intimidate other males.

As a result of these variations, the popular song changes over time. The new study shows that the current top song in the South Pacific travels quickly from Australia to French Polynesia over the course of a year or two.

The study was led by marine biologist Ellen Garland of the University of Queensland in Australia. Garland’s team used underwater microphones to collect 745 whale songs from six whale populations in the South Pacific over an 11-year period.

When Garland’s team analyzed the songs, they identified 11 distinct styles. Sometimes the top song contained bits from a previous year’s song, but sometimes it was very different. Song trends always traveled east from Australia, where the coast of the Kimberley hosts the world’s largest humpback population each calving season. Whales in a given region took about two to three months to adapt to the new song. The new song traveled all the way from Australia across the Pacific to French Polynesia over the course of one to two years.

Scientists continue to have questions about the meaning of male humpback songs. It is difficult to study the songs because humpbacks are too large to hold in captivity and challenging to track. There is currently no method for identifying how a female listening to a group of males singing the same song picks one out from the rest. Garland hopes to study this next.

Technorati Tags: ,

Tags: ,

Leave a Comment