Scientists dig the jazz music bowhead whales sing


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A bowhead whale surfaces in the Fram Strait in northwest Norway. (Photo by the Norwegian Polar Institute / Kit Kovacs)

A research team led by an oceanographer from the University of Washington has released the largest known ensemble of songs from bowhead whales, the jazz singers of the cetacean tribe.

An analysis of 184 different songs, recorded between 2010 and 2014, reveals that bowhead whales swimming in the Arctic Ocean east of Greenland have a surprisingly diverse vocalization repertoire.

“If the humpback whale whale the song is like classical music, bowhead whales are jazz, ”study lead author Kate Stafford of the UW Applied Physics Lab said in a press release. “The sound is freer in form. And when we looked at four winters of acoustic data, not only were there never been any types of songs repeated between years, but each season had a new set of songs.

Stafford and his colleagues published their findings in today’s issue of Biology Letters. The research follows other underwater recording campaigns Stafford has conducted in oceans around the world, including a six-month listening session that featured bowhead whale songs in 2008-2009.

For the tracking campaign, the researchers placed underwater microphones in the Fram Strait, an icy region of the Arctic Ocean between Greenland and the Norwegian islands of Svalbard. The area is only accessible to ships in late summer, but researchers have recorded songs from three-year cycles.

Whales sang regularly in the area from late fall to early spring, and there were a few more songs over the years.

The diversity and frequency of vocalizations suggests that the population is in good health. This is a relief, as bowhead whales have been hunted almost to extinction, and whales near Greenland are still considered endangered.

Like their more well-known humpback cousins, bowhead whales use vocalizations to attract mates, and maybe just to show off. The songs could also be used for other purposes.

“For marine mammals, acoustics are how they do everything,” Stafford explained. “Humans are primarily visual animals, but marine mammals live in a three-dimensional habitat where sound and acoustic information is their way of navigating, finding food, and communicating. “

When it comes to bowhead whales, little is known about the details – do only males sing or do females sing too? Do whales share songs? And what about jazz-style improvisation?

The dot on this Fram Strait map shows the hydrophone’s location from 2010 to 2014. It was moored about 80 meters below the surface in water 1,020 meters deep, (UW Graphic / Kate Stafford)

“Why are they changing their songs so much? Said Stafford. “In terms of behavioral ecology, that’s this great mystery.”

The diversity of songs may serve as a sign of evolutionary aptitude, increasing the singer’s status for mating or domination. To help unravel the mystery, researchers are placing radio beacons on bowhead whales to get more accurate information on all this jazz.

“Bowhead whales are amazing animals – they can live 200 years, they have the thickest fat of any whale, the longest baleen, they can break ice,” Stafford said. “And you think: they evolved to do all of these amazing things. I don’t know why they are doing this remarkable song, but there must be a reason.

Stafford’s co-authors for the Biology Letters study, titled “Extreme Diversity in the Songs of Spitsbergen’s Bowhead Whales,” include Christian Lydersen, Kit Kovacs, and Øystein Wiig. The research was funded by the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund, the Svalbard Science Forum, the Fram Center Incentive Fund and the Norwegian Research Council.

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