Today’s Solutions: February 08, 2023

Humans aren’t the only species that trade music and songs. Other intelligent animals can communicate complicated messages, like ravens and ants relaying to each other that there’s food or danger and where to find it. As it turns out, though, some species can also communicate, and share like humans, their music. 

Researchers from the University of Queensland have discovered that humpback whales can learn very complex songs from whales from different regions. 

Sea song swaps

Humpback whales from New Caledonia can learn songs from humpback whales on Australia’s east coast with remarkable accuracy. University of Queensland researchers discovered this by looking at the song patterns of whales from each region from 2009 to 2015. 

They were examining how “culture” transmits between populations. According to Jenny Allen of the University of Queensland School of Veterinary Science, “this really indicates a level of ‘cultural transmission’ beyond any observed non-human species.”

Researchers measured the complexity of the whale song by examining both the number and the length of the sounds they made.  By recording the songs, they were able to determine if songs changed from population to population, but they didn’t. New Caledonian whales learned and repeated the exact songs from their Australian counterparts. Each year the songs changed, and the whales would learn the new versions, proving they could adapt and learn new patterns. 

Whales learn these songs often on shared migration routes to feeding grounds in places like Antarctica. It’s unclear what the evolutionary purpose of this song-sharing is, but it could improve cooperation and bonding between groups. 

“Having an in-depth understanding of a species is known to greatly improve the efficacy of conservation and management methods,” Allen says. “We now have a more holistic picture of the behaviors, movements, and interactions of different humpback whale populations, including how they transmit culture…It means we’re better equipped to protect them against the many threats they face as our climate, and the planet, continue to change.”

Source Study: Scientific Reports Song complexity is maintained during inter-population cultural transmission of humpback whale songs | Scientific Reports (nature.com)

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