Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Top 40 of Whale Songs

By Magdeline Lum

A playlist of whale songs takes 2 years to reach French Polynesia.

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Scientists have known for decades that whale songs evolve over time. Researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) have found that the songs of male humpback whales change every year as they migrate across the Pacific Ocean. Previous research has revealed that only male humpback whales sing, and that song is a behaviour used in courtship and mating.

The researchers identified 11 different humpback whale song types in an 11-year period among six neighbouring populations in the Pacific Ocean. They found that it took around 2 years for new whale songs originating in Australia to reach French Polynesia. “I noticed that the songs moved quite rapidly through the six populations, usually taking 2 years to spread all the way across the region,” says PhD student Ellen Garland.

The movement of this change in the whale song playlist occurred in a step-wise fashion, similar to the game of Chinese Whispers. However, unlike in humans, there were few differences between the original and final songs. The spreading of songs could be due to males hearing each other’s songs along shared migration routes or by males moving out to another group for breeding.

“The reason we believe the song tends to travel east is because the eastern Australian population is the largest in the region and has a greater influence than the smaller Oceania ones,” Garland said.

The...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.