Just below the surface of the water off the Queensland coast, humpback whales can be heard singing clearly to each other as new research shows they are learning complex tunes from other regions.
- University of Queensland researchers believe whales are able to learn complex songs from other regions
- Only male whales sing, their distinct patterns changing each year
- Researchers hope to better understand interactions between New Caledonia and Eastern Australian whales
Around 40,000 humpback whales make their annual migration along Australia’s east coast and, according to Lady Elliot Island Reef Guide Jacinta Shackleton, you only have to stick your head underwater to hear them.
“You can actually hear their singing right on the surface of the water, and as you go deeper they get louder,” she said.
Their songs change every year, and researchers from the University of Queensland, including study leader Jenny Allen, found that neighboring whale populations learned the distinct tunes from each other.
“Thus, the song is learned from one population to another.”
Transmitting culture through song
The study examined the songs of male humpback whales from eastern Australia and New Caledonia between 2009 and 2015 to decipher how culture is passed between populations.
Dr Allen said it showed whales learn quickly and with remarkable accuracy.
“What we’ve found is that they don’t need to make it stupid at all,” she said.
It is not yet known how close populations must be to learn songs from each other.
“Both populations share a common migration route through New Zealand towards Antarctica, which is their feeding ground.”
Dr. Allen said there were places where the singing was easy to hear.
“When they get to their breeding grounds, which are around the Whitsundays region, that’s where they’ll sing the most,” she said.
Hervey Bay is also an important stopover for mothers and calves on their return trip south.
“If you put your head in the water in Hervey Bay, you have a good chance of hearing singing,” said Dr Allen.
Whale watching season begins
Peak whale watching season runs from July to October.
Ms Shackleton said it was the best time to see and hear the giants of the deep.
“It’s pretty amazing for divers because it gets really loud when you’re out there,” she said.
Understand why whales sing
Researchers still don’t know why whales sing, but they think it could be related to mating and reproduction.
“Females make sounds, but they don’t sing…only males sing,” Dr Allen said.
“What we don’t know is kind of who he’s talking to.
Dr Allen said the research has helped understand how these whale populations interact and how best to protect them.
“The population of eastern Australia is doing very well, but the population of New Caledonia is still at risk,” she said.
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