Humpback Whale Song

We still have much to learn in terms of fully understanding the secrets of the humpbacks’ song, which is perhaps why it remains one of Nature’s most compelling and enchanting sounds.

Humans have been fascinated with the humpback’s eerie musical stylings since at least 1979, when National Geographic distributed 10 million copies of marine scientist Roger Payne’s album “Songs of the Humpback Whale” with the magazine in an effort to draw attention to the plight of a species that was, at the time, threatened with extinction as a result of global whaling. Since then, the humpback has become one of the most beloved marine animals, and countless research studies have been dedicated to better understanding the mysteries of its haunting song. Many of those mysteries remain unsolved, however, and even now scientists are making new discoveries about the how, and why, of the humpback whale song.

In 2011, scientists from the University of Queensland published a study that suggested humpback whales (like humans) follow song trends that change by the season. The research team, led by marine biologist Ellen Garland, used hydrophones to record the songs of six distinct humpback populations in the waters of eastern Australia, New Caledonia, Tonga, American Samoa, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. After analyzing 11 years’ worth of recordings from each region, the scientists were able to distinguish 11 unique patterns, or songs. The new songs always originated in the eastern Australian humpback population, and spread from west to east across the entire South Pacific basin over the course of the year.

In the study, Garland hypothesized that this one-way transition is likely because the Australian humpback population is significantly larger than the one in French Polynesia, so there are a higher number of trendsetting individuals. It is thought that the trending song is transferred from one population to the next either when the whales come into acoustic contact with one another (a humpback’s song can travel for thousands of miles), or as male humpbacks disperse from one population to the next. According to Garland, it takes just two to three months for all the whales in a single area to pick up and learn a new song. The phenomenon represents one of the most complex and rapid patterns of cultural evolution across a region ever observed in a non-human species.

Studies like the one conducted by Garland and her team shed some light on how humpbacks sing (and in this case, how specific songs travel from coast to coast across an entire ocean). For many years, scientists have argued as to why the whales produce such complex songs. The most popular theory holds that because only the males sing, the song must be connected to mating rituals, i.e., that the males use these songs to woo a partner during mating season. However, so far there has been little scientific evidence to prove this theory. Indeed, humpbacks sing at all times of the year, even when they’re not looking for a mate, suggesting that there may be other factors inspiring the practice.

In December of 2014, a study led by Susan Parks of Syracuse University proposed that the whales use certain song patterns to help them hunt at night. The study fitted acoustic recording tags to a group of humpbacks living in the waters off Massachusetts. Analysis of the recordings showed that the whales use a specific song that sounds a lot like a ticking clock to flush eel-like fish known as a sand lances from their burrows in the seafloor. Parks suggested that the whales might also use their song to inform other humpbacks about fertile hunting grounds, particularly when food is scarce.

There are many other theories as to why humpbacks sing. Some scientists think that the whales use their songs to communicate information about their surroundings, particularly when they are migrating through unfamiliar territory. Others believe that the males sing to trigger estrus in female humpbacks; or that they use their songs to bond with other solitary males. We still have much to learn in terms of fully understanding the secrets of the humpbacks’ song, which is perhaps why it remains one of Nature’s most compelling and enchanting sounds. Most importantly, our fascination with the song of the humpback whale has helped to earn this species the international protection it deserves so that an animal that was threatened with extinction in 1979 now boasts thriving populations throughout most of its range.