Humpback whales teach each other songs from different regions and cultures

BRISBANE, Australia — One of the best aspects of traveling is experiencing new cultures. Scientists have long considered cultural crossover a distinctly human trait – until now. Researchers from the University of Queensland say humpback whales teach each other songs as they travel along Australia’s coast.

According to Dr. Jenny Allen, whose doctoral work at UQ’s School of Veterinary Science inspired this project, the study discovered that New Caledonian humpback whales learn new songs by other whales coming from Australia’s east coast. Incredibly, researchers say the New Caledonian humpbacks are great students, learning the new songs with remarkable accuracy.

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

The research team analyzed male humpback whale song patterns across local regions between 2009 and 2015. Study authors measured song complexity using both the amount of sounds the whales made and the length of the sound patterns.

“By listening to the Australian humpback population, we were able to see if the songs changed in any way when sung by the New Caledonian whales,” Dr. Allen explains. “We found they actually learned the exact sounds, without simplifying or leaving anything out.”

“And 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.”

humpback whales
Humpback whales (Photo by Elianne Dipp from Pexels)

Whale populations are bouncing back worldwide

All in all, this work lends a whole lot of credence to the theory that whales learn songs as they share migration routes (including New Zealand and shared feeding grounds like Antarctica) with other whales.

“It’s rare for this degree of cultural exchange to be documented on such a large scale in a non-human species,” Dr. Allen adds. “We hope these findings provide a model for further study into understanding the evolution of cultural communication in animals and humans.”

Humpback whales were recently removed from the endangered species list. While that’s obviously a positive sign, study authors caution that humpback whale populations are still very vulnerable.

“Having an in-depth understanding of a species is known to greatly improve the efficacy of conservation and management methods,” Dr. Allen concludes. “We now have a more holistic picture of the behaviors, movements and interactions of different humpback whale populations, including how they transmit culture. It means we’re better equipped to protect them against the many threats they face as our climate, and planet, continue to change.”

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

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