Whale songs and their meanings have long intrigued scientists and laymen alike. They can carry across thousands of miles of ocean and seem to convey messages between whales that human beings, with all of our canny linguistic adroitness, still find as puzzling as an American trying to comprehend the game of cricket. (All right. Maybe that was unfair to say. I can only speak for one American: me. What’s this cricket all about, you guys?) Maybe we should be tackling the mystery with an underwater bunker full of cryptologists armed with enigma machines and buckets of fresh, tasty krill to tempt our watery behemoth pals toward disclosure. Maybe they’ve been trying to help us landlubber monkeys solve world problems for years and finally gave up because our brains are too small to process the complexity of their sing-songy cetacean speech. It must be frustrating for them to be surrounded by tiny, hairy idiots with tone deafness to good music, perhaps? (I feel the same way about the neighborhood kids.)
While we’ve so far failed to decode the messages within the songs themselves, we have been able to notice when their distinctive patterns change over time, which presents some other interesting mysteries when further scrutinized. Scientists from The University of Queensland with members of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium have observed that the songs of humpback whales, in particular, change through the seasons and the years like pop songs. Says team member Ellen Garland: “Our findings reveal cultural change on a vast scale. [Songs move like] cultural ripples from one population to another, causing all males to change their song to a new version.” It’s interesting to note that this is being described as a cultural phenomenon, as it would be the first time this kind of exchange has been documented in any non-human species.
“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,” says Garland. “Songs were first learnt from males in the west and then subsequently learned in a stepwise fashion repeatedly across the vast region.”
The team noticed how songs from a previous season might make their way into the “playlist,” so to speak, to mingle with and create new songs. As a new song emerges, the other males seem to adapt it into their repertoire, abandoning the old song. “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,” Garland says. “This is then countered by the urge to sing the same tune, by the need to conform.”
Ah, perhaps we’re not so different from our Quasimodo cousins from the sea, after all?
The scientists’ findings are reported in the recent edition of Current Biology.