Human communication

Whales can learn songs from each other in a ‘cultural exchange’, study finds

Across the Australian coast, songs quiver through creaks, moans and whistles. Humpback whales, with their knobby heads and arched fins, are crooners of the sea, singing ballads new and old. What is fascinating is that they also learn complex new songs with the help of their friends from neighboring regions, a sign of a “cultural” transmission in the waters.

“It is rare for this degree of cultural exchange to be documented on such a large scale in a non-human species,” said Jenny Allen, a researcher at the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Queensland, in a press release.

Published in the journal Nature Science Reports Last week, the study told a fascinating story of communication that flows between two non-human communities, holding clues to animal evolution and conversational endeavors.

Allen, along with others, observed the sound waves of male humpback whales from two regions: New Caledonia, which is a group of islands in the South Pacific and the east coast of Australia. Between 2009 and 2015, they analyzed each region’s song pattern to understand how individual cultures influenced each other. The researchers, in this case, looked at the sound made by the whales and the duration of their sound patterns.

“We found that they actually learned the exact sounds, without simplifying or omitting anything,” Allen said. “And every year we observed them, they sang a different song, which means humpback whales can learn an entire song pattern from another population very quickly, even if it’s complex or difficult.”

The songs of the male humpback species (Megaptera novaeangliae) are known for the social learning dynamics they bring to the whale population. In 2018, researchers found that male humpback whales go through a cultural revolution every few years – in that they pick up entirely new songs every few years, likely while migrating (likely through New Zealand) or by sharing the same space as other whales while feeding.


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These sounds are also documented in anecdotal accounts of sailors and travelers of old. “…crews could hear a mysteriously beautiful call from the ocean that seemed to shimmer softly through their ship’s hull, like the faint, faded tone of a struck tuning fork,” Futurity wrote. These circles of guesswork were confirmed in 1952 when a US Navy hydrophone recorded the songs of humpback whales.

The purpose of whale song culture is a matter of controversy; a researcher has argued in the past that How? ‘Or’ What humpback whales learn their songs and Why their songs change may have nothing to do with social forces in general. The male humpback whale occupies a distinguished position in the animal kingdom precisely because of its ability to interact and learn culturally. “Cultural transmission involves what is heard being copied,” the researcher said at the time, noting that whales actually cause those songs they hear to change in their own way and at their own pace.

The whale research community is therefore buzzing with different ideas about the vocal culture that the humpback whale holds. The present research, however, focuses more on cementing the idea of ​​learning between two communities of whales, and also speaks kindly of the repertoire within these species.

For Allen, this not only points to “a level of ‘cultural transmission’ beyond any observed non-human species”, but also presents a key to more answers. How did culture become evident in the animal kingdom? And how has cultural communication evolved in animals and humans? These are some questions for which research could provide a starting point.

Additionally, any in-depth knowledge of a species “is known to greatly improve the effectiveness of conservation and management methods,” the researchers noted. We know that for some species of whales, such as the North Atlantic right whale, the extinction crisis is severe: it manifests itself in stunted growth due to long-term intergenerational damage, a process spurred by activities human. How a whale species sings and learns – from multiple communities – can be very informative in understanding the dynamics, behaviors and movement patterns between populations.

The song of the humpback whale can contain several plots at once, if only one listen.