Whales Not Just Singing the Same Old Song, Researchers Say

Male humpbacks come up with new tunes that spread across the ocean, evidence shows

THURSDAY, April 14 (HealthDay News) -- Male humpback whales have their own version of the hit parade, researchers say.

Within regional populations of the whales, males all sing the same mating song. But the pattern of the song changes over time, with new versions spreading across the ocean and nearly always from west to east, according to the study published online April 14 in the journal Current Biology.

In the study, researchers monitored humpback whale songs in six neighboring populations in the Pacific Ocean for a decade and found that new versions spread from Australia to French Polynesia over a period of about two years.

"The songs started in the population that migrates along the eastern coast of Australia and then moved -- just the songs, and probably not the whales -- all the way to French Polynesia in the east. Songs were first learned from males in the west and then subsequently learned in stepwise fashion repeatedly across the vast region," Ellen Garland, a graduate student at the University of Queensland, Australia, said in a journal news release.

Most of these songs contain a blend of new and old material, according to the researchers. "It would be like splicing an old Beatles song with U2," Garland said. "Occasionally they completely throw the current song out the window and start singing a brand new song." The new songs typically take over toward the end of the mating season.

These song changes may be an attempt to stand out from the crowd.

"We think this male quest for song novelty is in the hope of being that little bit different and perhaps more attractive to the opposite sex. This is then countered by the urge to sing the same tune, by the need to conform," Garland explained.

More information

The Whalesong Project has more about humpback whales.

Robert Preidt SOURCE: Current Biology, news release, April 14, 2011

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