From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

Humpback whales can learn songs from other populations, study reveals

A new study shows that humpback whales can accurately learn a song from a different humpback population

A humpback whale under the water
Published: August 10, 2022 at 8:33 am
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Humpback whales are superb singers, and now we know that they can also learn entire songs from other populations of whales in other regions.

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A team from the University of Queensland in Australia looked into the ways humpbacks in different geographical populations could match each other’s songs. Using seven years of recordings, the researchers took a deep dive into the details of six song types made by humpbacks from eastern Australia, which were learned a year later by whales around New Caledonia – an island group around 1,200km away.

“We found they actually learned the exact sounds, without simplifying or leaving anything out,” says Jenny Allen, who led the study. “Each year we observed them they sang a different song, so it means humpback whales can learn an entire song pattern from another population very quickly, even if it’s complex or difficult.”

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Such copying is remarkable – a bit like a human hearing opera, then singing it back perfectly. It also suggests cultural sharing. Songs are likely being learned on migration routes or at feeding grounds.


UQ Media · A spectogram of humpback whale song recorded by UQ's Dr Jenny Allen
The complex vocal performances of humpback whales can last for tens of minutes, often repeated for many hours. An album of their songs gained worldwide fame in the 1970s and is still the best-selling recording of nature sounds ever made.

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Only male humpbacks sing, and all the singers in a wide sea area deliver the same songs in the same way during each year. But songs vary between populations. North Atlantic humpbacks, for example, sing different ones to those in the North Pacific. Songs also vary annually, sometimes slightly, sometimes with more radical shifts.

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