Whales Can Learn Songs From Each Other in a ‘Cultural Exchange,’ Finds Study
Across the coastline of Australia, songs are quavering through squeaks, groans, and whistles. The humpback whales, with their knobbly heads and arch-like fins, are crooners of the sea, singing ballads new and old. What’s fascinating is that they are also learning new, complex songs with help from their friends from neighboring regions — signaling a “cultural” transmission in the waters.
“It’s 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, the University of Queensland, in a press release.
Published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports last week, the study told a tale of fascinating communication that flows between two non-human communities, holding clues regarding animal evolution and conversation efforts.
Allen, along with others, looked at the sound waves of the male humpback whales from two regions: New Caledonia, which is a cluster of islands in the South Pacific, and Australia’s east coast. Between 2009 and 2015, they analyzed the pattern of songs from each region to understand just how much individual cultures influenced each other’s songs. Researchers, in this case, looked at the sound the whales make and the length of their sound patterns.
“We found they actually learned the exact sounds, without simplifying or leaving anything out,” said Allen. “And each year we observed them they sang a different song, so it 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 storied for the dynamic of social learning they bring in 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 probably while migrating (probably through New Zealand) or 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 yore. “…crews could hear a mysteriously beautiful call coming from the ocean that seemed to softly shimmer through their ship’s hull, like the faint and fading tone from a struck tuning fork,” wrote Futurity. These circles of conjecture were confirmed in 1952 when a U.S. Navy hydrophone recorded the songs of humpbacks.
What purpose whale song culture serves is a matter of some contention; one researcher has argued in the past that how humpback whales learn their songs and why their songs change may have nothing to do with social forces overall. The male humpback whale holds a distinguished position in the animal kingdom precisely because of their ability to culturally interact and learn. “Cultural transmission implies that what’s heard is copied,” the researcher said then, noting that the whales actually do is changing these songs they hear in their own fashion and rhythm.
The whale researching community is thus buzzing with different ideas about the vocal culture that the humpback holds. The present research, however, focuses more on cementing the idea of learning between two whale communities, and also speaks kindly of the repertoire within these species.
For Allen, this not only indicates “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 did cultural communication evolve in both animals and humans? These are some questions that the research could provide a starting point for.
Moreover, any deep-sighted knowledge of a species “is known to greatly improve the efficacy of conservation and management methods,” the researchers noted. We know for some whale species, like the North Atlantic right whale, the crisis of extinction is dire: it is manifesting as stunted growth due to long-term inter-generational damage, a process spurred by human activities. How a whale species sings and learns — from communities more than one — can be quite instructive in understanding their inter-population dynamics, behaviors, and moving patterns.
The song of the humpback whale can hold many intrigues all at once, if only one is listening.