Whales learn songs from each other in cultural ‘deep dive’

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A study by the University of Queensland found that humpback whales can learn incredibly complex songs from whales in other regions.

Dr Jenny Allen, whose doctoral work at UQ’s School of Veterinary Sciences led to the study, said the researchers found that humpback whales in New Caledonia could learn songs from their Australian east coast counterparts with remarkable accuracy.

“This really indicates a level of ‘cultural transmission’ beyond any observed non-human species,” Dr Allen said.

The study looked closely at the song patterns of male humpback whales in each region between 2009 and 2015, to examine how culture is transmitted between populations.

Dr Allen said the complexity of songs was determined by measuring both the number of sounds the whales make and the length of the sound patterns.

“By listening to the Australian population of humpback whales, we were able to see if the songs changed in any way when sung by whales in New Caledonia,” said Dr Allen.

“We found that they actually learned the exact sounds, without simplifying or omitting anything.

“And every year we observed them, they sang a different song, which means humpback whales can learn an entire song pattern from another population very quickly, even if it’s complex or difficult.”

The results support the idea that whales learn songs on shared migration routes like New Zealand or shared feeding grounds like Antarctica.

“It’s rare that this degree of cultural exchange is documented on such a large scale in a non-human species,” Dr Allen said.

“We hope these findings will provide a model for further study in understanding the evolution of cultural communication in animals and humans.”

While humpback whales were recently removed from the endangered species list, Dr Allen said their populations still need to be carefully managed and these findings could be helpful.

“Having a thorough understanding of a species is known to greatly improve the effectiveness of conservation and management methods,” said Dr Allen.

“We now have a more holistic picture of the behaviors, movements and interactions of different populations of humpback whales, including how they transmit culture.

“It means we are better equipped to protect them from the many threats they face as our climate and our planet continue to change.”

The research is a collaboration with Operation Cetaceans of New Caledonia and has been published in Scientific reports.

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Materials provided by University of Queensland. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


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