Whales Sing When and Where They Wanna

Scientific American

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Humpback whales sing most frequently where and when they breed. But researchers have discovered that whales can sing complex songs even when diving and foraging, when it’s neither the time nor the place for mating behavior. The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE. [Alison K. Stimpert et al., Humpback Whale Song and Foraging Behavior on an Antarctic Feeding Ground]

Researchers tagged ten humpback whales with suction-cup sensors and tracked each mammal for a full day in Antarctic waters during the fall—the time and place when whales feed rather than breed. While the sensors picked up background song near all of the whales, two individuals performed long, complex songs more suited to mating behavior. They even sang while on feeding lunges more than 100 meters below the surface.

The fact that these whales can vocalize even under widely different water pressures may help us figure out how they produce their songs. And more important, the overlap in breeding and feeding activities proves humpback and other baleen whales are way more behaviorally flexible than we thought. Unlike some human singers, they are definitely not one-hit wonders.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Whale Audio Credit: Stimpert AK, Peavey LE, Friedlaender AS, Nowacek DP (2012) Humpback Whale Song and Foraging Behavior on an Antarctic Feeding Ground. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51214. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051214]


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