Why do humpback whales sing songs?

Why do humpback whales sing songs?

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Scientists have documented that it seems to only be male humpback whales who sing structured songs, but do we know what purpose their songs play?

There are four hypotheses with varying levels of supporting evidence for why humpback whales sing.

Yes, only males have been shown to sing. It used to be thought that the songs only occurred on breeding grounds and therefore served a reproductive purpose. However, songs have since been recorded on migration routes and feeding grounds, though not as prolifically.

The hypotheses are:

  1. "Mate Attraction" whereby males sing and females approach them to mate. No evidence has ever shown a female humpback whale approach a singing male. Rather, a group of males will swim after a female, vying for position, until she is receptive to mating. Then the closest whale (the primary escort) will be best poised for success. In my opinion, this is the least plausible hypothesis.

  2. "Lekking" whereby a group of males sing to stimulate the females to begin estrus and advertise their body size and health for female mate choice. This may allow for female selection of choosing a mate later while being pursued as part of competitive group. I am unaware of which articles support this hypothesis and provide evidence. Birds and land mammals are much easier to observe in a lekking behavior than any underwater animal is.

  3. "Territory establishment" whereby males sing to mark their territorial bubble of water. If a male has a larger territory, then it is more likely a female will pass through that larger territory so that the male can respond by pursing her. This could be supported by proving that male humpback whales respect each other's territories and space themselves consistently across their watery world. Refer to

  4. "Orientation by echolocation" has recently been put forward by Edward Mercado that song reflects on a broad scale around the whale's environment to provide feedback for navigating the general area. Many researchers argue the plausibility of such low frequencies echoing effectively.

New studies into cultural transmission of parts of songs across ocean basins may suggest the song is not just for reproduction but to fulfill wider communication needs or generate a form of social creativity. See work by Ellen Garland.

Mainly done by male whales during mating season, the songs serve to attract females (possible flirt with them), escort them from place to place and as a means of definining territory to other competing male whales.

Facts About Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are enormous creatures — about the size of a school bus. They are known for their haunting and melodic songs and for breaching the water with amazing acrobatic abilities.

Humpbacks don't normally have a hump on their backs the name comes from the large hump that forms when they arch their backs before making a deep dive into the ocean. The scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means "big-winged New Englander" because the population that swam off New England was the best known to Europeans, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Humpback whales are not the biggest whales — that's the blue whale. Humpbacks can grow to 60 feet (18 meters) long, and they can weigh a whopping 40 tons (about half the size of a blue whale), according to the NOAA. Their flippers can grow up to 16 feet (5 m) long, which is the largest appendage in the world. Their tails are also massive and grow up to 18 feet (5.5 m) wide. Like most whales, females are larger than males.

Humpbacks' heads are broad and rounded and covered with knobs, called tubercles. Each knob contains at least one stiff hair, according to the American Cetacean Society (ACS). The purpose of the hairs is not known, but it is thought that they may be motion detectors.

Humpbacks are black on the upper (dorsal) side and mottled black and white on the under (ventral) side. Ventral pleats run from the tip of the lower jaw to the belly, according to the ACS. They have a dorsal fin on their backs. The shape and color pattern on the dorsal fin and flukes is unique to each individual, like human fingerprints. That discovery has helped researchers identify, catalog and monitor humpback whale migration, population size, sexual maturity and behavior patterns.

Humpback Whales Sing Different Songs Every Few Years

Music is constantly changing and evolving – while your parents might have danced to bands like The Police and Duran Duran, you may prefer Taylor Swift and Stormzy. And it turns out the same is true for cetaceans.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) go through a "cultural revolution" of sorts once every few years, trading their old song for something simpler and fresher. Now, thanks to a study recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists think they know how these "revolutions" take place.

The purpose of a male humpback's song is still a mystery to scientists. It may be a mating call or a form of man-to-man bonding, or it may be something else altogether – we just don't know. But we do know that it is highly complex, that all whales sing the same song, and that it goes through a cycle, getting a little more complex every year. At least, that is, until there is a "revolution," which turns the dial back to zero and restarts the entire process.

Jenny Allen, a marine biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, and colleagues spent 13 years between 2002 and 2014 collecting and analyzing the songs of 95 humpback whale singers. In total, they amassed 412 individual song cycles, investigating the songs’ length, repetitiveness, and variation to determine how complex each was.

The team noticed small changes made to the chorus every year. The result of which meant the songs slowly became longer and more complex, possibly due to embellishments made by individual whales hoping to make the tune their own. However, whenever there was a "cultural revolution," the new song would always be less complicated than the one it replaced.

Why this simplicity? The researchers aren't so sure but offer up a couple of suggestions. It may come down to a preference – the simpler it is, the easier it is for individuals to add their own twist to the song. But it might instead reveal a limit on a whale's ability to learn. It may be that it is just too difficult for whales to learn a song that is any more sophisticated.

Hopefully, this is a question future research will be able to settle but, in the meantime, Allen and her team hope this study can contribute to our understanding of how human culture spreads and develops over the years.

"Humpback whale song is one of the best examples of animal culture [scientists] have," Allen told Discover. Humpbacks extend their culture (or, in this case, their songs) from population to population in a way that has only been witnessed in humans.

"If we can understand what drives the development of culture across animal species, we might be able to clarify what drove it to develop to such a complex extreme in humans."

Bowhead whale

While humpbacks get more attention, bowhead whales also produce elaborate, haunting songs. Native to frigid waters in the Arctic Ocean, bowheads have a layer of blubber up to 1.6 feet (50 centimeters) thick as well as a giant, bow-shaped head that helps them break through sea ice. They can live for 200 years, making them the longest-lived mammal on Earth and raising medical interest in their genome.

But bowheads have also piqued scientific curiosity with their complex songs, including a 2014 study in the journal Marine Mammal Science. Researchers not only documented 12 unique songs performed by at least 32 whales off Alaska, but they also realized the whales were sharing the songs with each other. Unlike humpbacks, which all sing the same song each migration period, bowheads may be the only whales with such a wide repertoire of shared songs in a single season.

Another study, published April 2018 in the journal Biology Letters, revealed the "extreme diversity" of bowhead whales around the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. Members of the Spitsbergen bowhead population produced 184 different song types over a 3-year period, the researchers found.

"It's hard to put into words," study author and University of Washington oceanographer Kate Stafford tells the Seattle Times. "They shriek. They moan. They cry and they rattle and they whistle and they hum."

Bowheads were also hunted heavily during the whaling era, reduced from a historic population of about 40,000 individuals to just 3,000 by the 1920s. They have since recovered to between 7,000 and 10,000, though, and scientists think the diversity of songs being sung by bowheads near Alaska might be due to population growth during the 30 years since acoustic monitoring began in the 1980s.

Here's a song from one of the Spitsbergen bowheads:

And here's a slightly longer recording, featuring Alaska bowheads:

Songs of the Humpback Whales

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It is early morning, already hot, and we are over deep Caribbean water several miles offshore of the emerald slopes of Domenica.

Shane Gero has lowered a waterproof microphone overboard. We&rsquove been hoping to hear sperm whales, but through the headphones I hear&mdashfaintly&mdasha humpback whale singing in the deep distance. Sperm whales are very fussy about who they will speak to, using code-talking clicks to identify their family members and determine which other families are in their social clan, and which others must be shunned. By contrast, the humpback is broadcasting his egalitarian canto to anyone, everyone, and to no one in particular. And that is very fortunate for both humpback whales and for us, because it lets humans hear the great beauty in the humpbacks&rsquo songs. And this mysterious, hard-to-explain emotional resonance woke humanity just in time to save humpbacks, and indeed all the world&rsquos great whales, from the annihilation for which we&rsquod set them up.

I scan the horizon for any sign of the humpback, a bushy blow perhaps, or dark sky-flagging flukes. Humpback whales&rsquo oft-photographed, high-flying, wing-flippered, airborne breaches make them iconic. They often travel so close along shore that, in their season, we frequently see them blowing and fluking while we take our dogs for a run on the beaches of Long Island, New York.

After giving birth in the tropics, mother humpback whales who&rsquove been fasting for months turn toward higher latitudes, their little ones following to food-rich waters, learning the routes they will follow for the rest of their lives. Some humpback whales born on opposite sides of the Pacific&mdashthe Philippines and Mexico&mdashtrek to the same feeding grounds off Alaska&rsquos Aleutian Islands. Meanwhile, other Mexican humpbacks and Hawaiian-born humpbacks follow their mothers&rsquo annual commute to rich feeding grounds off Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. The vastly different routes and destinations, learned from mothers through the ages, constitute a key aspect of their culture.

We normally don&rsquot think much about the endpoints of migration routes. If we think of migrations, we think of them as &ldquoinstinctive.&rdquo And for many species it would be difficult indeed to tease apart what aspects of migrations are learned.

But migrations were not always the same as they are now. Native Hawaiians, keen observers of the sea and its creatures, made no mention of humpback whales. This is strange because nowadays if you look seaward from almost any beach in Hawaii for a little while during winter, you&rsquoll likely see one or more humpback whales erupting out of the ocean, detonating explosions. Whales are hard to miss&mdashunless they&rsquore not there.

So where were they? It appears that humpback whales began to concentrate in Hawaiian waters only about two hundred years ago. And since the 1970s their density has risen dramatically, seemingly faster than reproduction. How could such a thing happen?

When the nineteenth-century whaling ship captain Charles Scammon discovered the Mexican lagoons where gray whales congregated to mate and give birth, he almost completely exterminated them. Perhaps a few humpback whales, subjected to such havoc, somehow decided to avoid a breeding area turned fatal and discovered Hawaii. Their songs may have been heard by distant whales, who might have inferred from them a suggestion of more peaceful waters and veered toward them as though investigating rumors of some better life. At any rate, it&rsquos pretty certain that humpback whales weren&rsquot there in the 1800s. They&rsquore there now by the thousands.

No one knows for sure whether humpback whales went to Hawaii to escape their holocaust, but if they didn&rsquot go for that reason, their timing was impeccable. This singular diaspora might be the most momentous and successful non-human cultural shift during the recent history of life on Earth.

We can hear this morning&rsquos singing whale with relative ease. But the fact that a humpback whale might sing was entirely unknown to humans until the 1950s, when U.S. military people who&rsquod begun listening for Russian submarines were astonished to realize that the strange sounds they were hearing were coming from whales. Word got to whale scientists Roger Payne and Scott McVay.

Payne&rsquos 1970 vinyl record of humpback songs became an instant sensation. When he and McVay published &ldquoSongs of Humpback Whales&rdquo in Science in 1971, the magazine featured a visual representation of the structure of a song on its cover. Their first sentence noted, &ldquoHumpback whales produce a series of beautiful and varied sounds for a period of 7 to 30 minutes and then repeat the same series with considerable precision. . . . The function of the songs is unknown.&rdquo [1]

The song contains elements that make up themes that the whales repeat in specific order. Payne told me, &ldquoThe songs of humpback whales employ rhyme and why not? Humans have been using rhyme at least since Homer and probably long before. It&rsquos a way of remembering.&rdquo [2] A male humpback will usually complete the song, then repeat it numerous times, singing for hours on end.

Payne tells me that singing humpback whales normally breathe when the song appears to reach its end. Every now and then they breathe mid-song but they don&rsquot interrupt their singing. &ldquoThey tuck their breath in, and let the song continue to flow.&rdquo [3]

We know now that the male humpback whale&rsquos strange and haunting singing is a changeable cultural aspect of that species. Each year, all adult male humpbacks within each ocean sing the same song. But in each ocean the song is different from the song being sung in other oceans. There&rsquos a Pacific song, an Atlantic song, and so on. And each year the song of each ocean changes. The new songs spread wavelike, a slow-moving fad crossing blue infinities whale-to-whale, all the whales adopting the same changed elements of the song. When songs of Hawaiian humpbacks and Mexico&rsquos Socorro Island humpbacks changed simultaneously despite a separation spanning 4,800 kilometers of ocean, researchers Ellen Garland and colleagues called this pattern &ldquounparalleled in any other nonhuman animals . . . cultural change at a vast scale.&rdquo [4]

How the song will change, how much will change, and how rapidly, humans cannot predict. Somehow together, strangely, the whales create a new song. There&rsquos a lovely metaphor for us in that.

Planet Earth constantly thrums with messages being sent and received by living things. Life is vibrant and it generates good vibrations throughout the air, the sea, and the ground. But whale sounds seem particularly enchanted. Roger Payne wrote of the first time he heard a humpback whale singing: &ldquoNormally you don&rsquot hear the size of the ocean . . . but I heard it that night. . . . That&rsquos what whales do they give the ocean its voice, and the voice they give is ethereal and unearthly.&rdquo [5]

Payne later told me, &ldquoThe reaction of some people to hearing whales sing is to burst into tears. I&rsquove seen that a lot.&rdquo [6]

How the songs function among whales remains unknown. Females do not approach singers, nor do males. The function of humpback whale song among humans is easier to describe: Humpbacks sing the song of their kind and their culture, but it resonates in humans who hear it. Their songs entangle with human emotions. This haunting resonance created a momentous turning point in the human relationship with life on the planet&mdashand beyond. In 1979, National Geographic magazine inserted a disk of humpback songs into ten million copies of its flagship magazine, the largest-ever printing of any recording. Not only was Payne&rsquos life changed his recordings changed whales and humanity.

The first thing the recordings did was to save the whales from total annihilation. Their populations were so depleted that in 1966 the International Whaling Commission had officially banned hunting humpback whales. But whalers of some nations continued killing them and lying about it. From 1947 to 1973, Soviet whalers alone reported killing 2,710 humpback whales they actually killed 48,702, around twenty times what they&rsquod admitted. [7]

But propelled largely by the beauty humans perceived in the recordings of humpback whales singing, the movement to &ldquoSave the Whales&rdquo hit full stride. Humans learned that whales are not things, but rather, neighbors living with us in the world. And so astonished were we by this realization, that whales went from being ingredients of margarine in the 1960s to the spiritual icons of the 1970s&rsquo emerging environmental movement.

After the first recordings, musicians such as Paul Winter, Judy Collins, and David Rothenberg began making music with humpback songs. As the volume of the music came up, the blasts of the harpoon-cannons receded. Within a few years, whale hunting was largely ended.

So deeply did the whales&rsquo music reach us that a recording of humpback whale song is among the few sounds included aboard the Voyager spacecraft. Humanity&rsquos calling card to the galaxy has taken humpback song beyond our solar system. It&rsquos a message in a bottle, hoping, perhaps, that an alien life form of great and cultured intellect will understand.

But the whales&rsquo message is simple, and we ourselves should be able to understand it: &ldquoWe, the living, celebrate being alive.&rdquo The song culture of humpback whales changed our inter-species culture. And why? Simply this: we briefly directed our attention to something beautiful on Earth. For a moment&mdashwe listened. The whales continue calling us, asking, in effect, &ldquoCan you hear me now?&rdquo


This essay is adapted from Carl Safina&rsquos new book, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2020). Used with permission.

Sensory Bias

Darwin (1871) theorized that certain elaborate male traits, such as, presumably, singing, evolve by way of an intrinsic aesthetic sense. Accordingly, the more recent sensory bias hypothesis holds that, sometimes, female preference for a male trait evolves before the trait itself. Females may have a “preexisting bias” for certain male traits, which are “intrinsically stimulating” because of female sensory system organization. This is supported by sensory physiology studies and behavior, and has been demonstrated in swordtail fish (Basolo 1995, 1998), Tungara frogs (Ryan and Rand 1990) and a growing number of other species.

Mercado (1998) points out that the organization of sounds produced by animals can be functional, and/or may reflect the physiology of the organs that produce them. By way of sexual selection, perhaps they also reflect the physiology of the organs that perceive them (e.g., female humpback whale brains). Wallin (1991) observes that the “dynamic dichotomy in music is similar to that which characterizes organismal systems,” and goes on to propose a “morphodynamic isomorphism” between the form of music and that of its physiological substrate (i.e., the brain).

Disorder and variation appear to be related in a mental category of greater excitement, which also contains several other qualities such as high-pitch, and sound itself, compared to silence. Low-pitched sounds, order and regularity are likewise related in a lower-excitement mental category. Humans are amused by intricate mixtures of these and other more and less exciting things in many contexts outside of music and song. We remove the disorder from our visual environment while at the same time embellishing it with decorations, for instance, and appreciate such mixtures in idiomatic language.

What Wallin called morphodynamic isomorphism is probably closely related to the inevitable, universally liquid crystalline physical state of the brain and sensory system in animals. Due to its liquid crystalline composition, the brain fluctuates on small scales over time between a relatively solid, ordered and regular condition and a relatively fluid, disordered and irregular one. It takes on the former qualities when we sleep and the later qualities when we’re awake. It fluctuates on a daily time scale between a composition with more and then less of the given qualities as its temperature changes with its activity level and our level of arousal. It resists spending long periods in either a more or less excited state, in part by resisting exposure to sensations which push it too far in one or the other physical direction. We prefer a mixture of wakefulness and sleep, or one of more and less excitement over too much of one or the other. A similar preference on a smaller time scale, along with the assumption that higher-pitch is more exciting than lower-pitch in sounds, is probably responsible for the intricate interplay between these qualities in language and words. Brains may embody a preference for song in a similar way, enjoying the way it stimulates sensory material without pushing it too far in the more or less exciting, disorderly or orderly directions on small scales. This would fit with our use of the word “like” to mean both likable and similar. Songs are more similar to brains than noise.

Humpback whales found to compose new communal song every few years

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A team of researchers from the University of Queensland and the University of St. Andrews has found that humpback whales abandon community songs every few years and pick up new ones. In their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the group describes their multiyear study of humpback whale songs and what they found.

Some species of whales sing—humpback whales, in particular, are known for their songs. Interestingly, all male humpback whales sing the same song—though some do make some minor modifications to it. In this new effort, the researchers have discovered that every few years, humpback whales choose to abandon the song they all know, and learn to sing a new one. The research team made this finding by conducting a study of whale songs over the course of 13 years—listening in on humpback whales singing off the eastern coast of Australia and in the South Pacific.

The researchers noticed that a new song would start out as a simple tune that would grow in size and complexity over time, eventually reaching a point at which it became ungainly. Some new group of whales would eventually abandon the song and come up with a new one, which they carried with them as they migrated to other parts of the ocean. Along the way, other whales would hear the song and abandon the old one, as well. Eventually, all the humpback males would be singing the same new tune.

The researchers still cannot say for sure why the whales sing, though it is tied to the breeding season, or why they change their song every few years. They suspect it is because the song grows too complex, suggesting a cap on a learning curve—though it is possible the whales simply grow bored with it. The researchers note that social singing by the whales is an example of animal culture. And learning about animal culture could perhaps lead to a better understanding of how complex human culture evolved. They also note that the kind of cultural transmission seen in the whale songs has only ever been observed in humans.

Humpback whales learn new songs as they migrate, scientists say

Researchers record a "hybrid of two songs" at a newly-discovered stopover, suggesting the whales may be learning new songs.

Wednesday 4 September 2019 13:37, UK

Humpback whales can learn new songs from each other as they make their annual migration, scientists have said.

Researchers have discovered similarities in whale songs recorded at the Kermadec Islands in the South Pacific Ocean and songs from multiple locations where they spend the winter, from New Caledonia to the Cook Islands.

The study, led by the University of St Andrews centred on the Kermadec Islands, a set of tiny volcanic islands around 600 miles (1,000km) northeast of Auckland, which were recently found to be a migratory stopover for the whales.

Scientists already knew the huge mammals shared songs as they migrated across the ocean, the songs spreading across breeding populations from Australia to French Polynesia.

It is a process that can take up to three years.

Scientists from the university's School of Biology, working with the University of Auckland, have found that, in addition to sharing songs, migration may help them learn new ones.

Dr Luke Rendell, from the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews, said: "Song themes from multiple wintering grounds matched songs recorded at the Kermadecs.

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Those songs included "a hybrid of two songs, suggesting that multiple humpback whale populations from across the South Pacific are travelling past these islands and song learning may be occurring.

"Our results are consistent with the hypothesis of song learning on a shared migratory route, a mechanism that could drive the eastern transmission of song across the South Pacific," she added.

Dr Ellen Garland, also from the University of St Andrews, said: "Our research has revealed the migration patterns of humpback whales appear to be written into their songs.

"While convergence and transmission have been shown within a whale population during migration and on their wintering grounds, song exchange and convergence on a shared migratory route remained elusive."

Sea lion swallowed whole by humpback whale

The smaller creature had a very close call when it was scooped up as the whale sifted the sea for food

Humpback whales, which can grow to more than 50 feet (15m), are found in every ocean in the world and are famous for their singing.

Male humpbacks produce a long series of calls that are normally heard during the winter breeding season.

The same song may be repeated for several hours, in spite of the groups sometimes being up to 3,100 miles (5000km) apart.

Sperm whale and calf die after being tangled in fishing net

The deaths come after a 26ft-long pregnant sperm whale was found dead on a Sardinian beach with 48lbs of plastic in its belly

Researchers are not certain why humpback whales sing, but believe the songs may be used to attract females or mark territory.

Why (and how) do whales sing?

Whale vocalizations are a bit of a mystery. We know that only the males of some baleen whales sing, but we’re not sure what those compositions—specifically structured phrases and melodies that repeat and evolve within their whale communities over many seasons—are communicating. Could it be a tool for finding a mate or deterring the competition? Could it be an important part of how they migrate? Or could they be communicating the story of their pod in a way we don’t yet understand?

TED Ed explores the research in the video above: Why do whales sing?

Explore more whale songs and sounds at Voices in the Sea, the Jupiter Foundation, and MailChimp’s playful Whale Synth.

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The Cultural Differences in Humpback Whale Songs

One group of researchers found distinct differences among songs from groups of humpback whales that are geographically isolated from each other.

The humpback whale’s remarkable song is one of the best known underwater songs. Hauntingly beautiful, the songs of male humpbacks have been the subject of much research — and the topic of at least one Star Trek Movie. To the casual listener, the songs may seem similar, despite their complexity. But listen closely and it becomes clear that the song of the humpback is far from universal.

According to David Helweg and his colleagues, writing in Behavior, humpback songs can last for hours. While there is some singing along migration routes, the singing peaks at areas and times related to reproduction. The males sing the most complex songs, but the females make some music of their own and do seem to listen to the males. To this day, nobody knows exactly how it works, but in some way, the song improves male reproductive success.

Individual songs are complicated enough, consisting of sets of sounds within other sounds. There seems to be some individual improvisation, but Helweg describes clear evidence of different dialects of songs. Populations of whales from a given area sang songs that were different from other populations with which they had limited contact. The farther apart two groups were, the more different the sounds were. For example, Indian Ocean humpbacks sound very different from Pacific Ocean humpbacks, while different populations within the same general part of the Pacific will share more elements and song structures.

The songs are loud, but probably only travel tens of kilometers. Assuming whales pick up song ideas from other whales, they need to be relatively close by to hear them, helping to maintain differences between widely separated groups. Nevertheless, the presence of some similarities between groups suggests that, at some point, different groups do interact and share song ideas. Helweg suggests that, at least in the separate populations he studied between Eastern Australia, New Zealand, and Tonga, the whales must all meet in some unknown location. Every winter the songs change a little bit, suggesting that groups meet, share songs, then go their separate ways, where the songs develop elements specific to each group.

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Now, 25 years after Helweg’s paper, that place has been identified by a team that includes one of Helweg’s original co-authors. Whales from different populations seem to take a detour to Raoul Island, in a small archipelago between New Zealand and Tonga. There the whales spend a few days in what has been dubbed the “Whale Karaoke Parlor,” listening to and sharing each other’s songs. It must be quite the show!

Watch the video: Ξανάρχισε το κυνήγι φαλαινών η Ιαπωνία (August 2022).