Help scientists categorise whale song... also, why do whales sing?
September 5, 2014 6:27 AM   Subscribe is a project (which you can contribute to!) to help "marine researchers understand what whales are saying." - really it's a project looking at the effects that manmade sound has on marine life, but what whales are communicating with their songs is still a really interesting question, so I've listed some relevant links in extended description.

Why whales make the sounds they do is still really poorly understood and the answer depends on what type of whale we're talking about. has song from 2 types of whales, pilot and killer whales, but the reasons for singing across whale species is way more diverse than most people probably think.

Here is a (probably incomplete) list of reasons for whale singing/vocalising (sorry some of the papers are behind paywalls (I've marked the accessible ones)):

* Sexual selection: Male humpback whales have a song which acts as a vocal sexual display (this is thought to be the case because only the male humpbacks actually produce songs. Incidentally, they can do this continuously 24 hours a day which is insane.) In contrast, in sperm whales, in breeding grounds, vocalisations are almost entirely produced by females.
* Asserting dominance: Humpbacks are thought to organise the male hierarchy for the purposes of breeding (accessible paper here).
* Finding/not losing each other: This is thought to be the primary reasons for pilot whales to make vocalisations. This study (accessible) found that "Greater numbers of most whistle types were produced when whales were spread over a larger area and when more subgroups were present." This suggests that the function of the whistles is to maintain contact and communicate location.
* Navigation: Some whale species (e.g. sperm whales, killer whales) can use echolocation using clicks to locate things and identify prey. Clicks have also been shown to appear during social interactions. Humpback songs have also been hypothesised to be used as sonar ((paywalled) paper here).
* Communicating activity: Killer Whales have been found to have different vocalisations for different activities such as hunting or traveling (paper here). Humpbacks also make different vocalisations when herding fish, I'm not sure if this assists the herding, or is communicative to the other whales... ((accessible) paper here).
* Maintaining group identity and cohesiveness: Many researches think that some whales have different "dialects" in different groups to identify their own and differentiate from others (Old (paywalled) paper here).
*Self identification: Other researchers have speculated about other whale types (such as Sperm Whales) where the song differs between individuals. The song in this case may just be an identity marking on an individual level or the equivalent of the whales singing "MEEEEEEEE, I'M MEEEEEE", this is a lovely thought.

Another interesting question is whether whale song is innate or learned. Some species of whales have been shown to have culturally transmitted songs from one whale to another across vast geographic areas. This study (open access) showed that not only are the songs of Humpback whales culturally transmitted, but also changed through transmission and these changes enabled specific cultural chains to be tracked over many years and hundreds of miles, and at least one song type was transmitted between two different ocean basins! (This is really super cool). This is one of the very few instances in animal communication where something which is thought to be a form of sexual selection has been subject to both conformity (to whatever the current song in vogue is) and plasticity (where new whales can learn the song whatever it currently is). Different "dialects" of vocalisations have also been demonstrated in Killer Whales (see here). The other species that do this, of course, are humans as conformity and plasticity are features that human babies need to acquire any language they are exposed to.
posted by hanachronism (5 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
When I think of whale songs, or marine mammal communication in general, I always think of this or this.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:37 AM on September 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Related: have we figured out why people talk?
posted by fredludd at 11:54 AM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

St. Peepsburg, I thought for sure one of your links would've been this one.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:19 PM on September 5, 2014

Aww, Oriole, you're making me cry! And reminding me of the Pink Floyd song
Several Species Of Small Marine Animals Gathered Together In An Ocean Cave And Grooving With A Pict

Not to mention Maya Angelou's classic, I know why the Beached Whale Sings.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:59 PM on September 5, 2014

Previously: Whalesong and ocean sounds.
posted by cenoxo at 8:36 AM on September 7, 2014

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