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Whales learn songs from each other

“Beasts of science” is like a collection of stories. Beautiful stories that tell the living in all its freshness. But also in all its complexity. A parenthesis to marvel at the treasures of the world. For this new episode, let’s dive into the depths to meet a giant of the seas: the whale.

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[EN VIDÉO] 1,500 dolphins play with a baby humpback whale
Filmed by a drone, this amazing scene shows a poorly explained encounter between a large group of dolphins (about 1,500) and a humpback whale accompanied by its calf, off the Californian coast, in Monterey Bay. Swimming very close to the large cetaceans, the dolphins splash them. The whale, perhaps embarrassed, dives, followed by its calf, and the dolphins ride the waves as they do near boats.

the silent world. Thus Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle qualified the seabed. That was in the mid-1950s. Since then, our vision of what is happening in the oceans has evolved considerably. Scientists now know that. Fish, shrimp and even coral emit sounds. Dolphins produce rapid clicks and whistles.

But, at the bottom of the oceans, whales are the only ones who can sing. We have known this since the beginning of the 1970s, only. When American researchers discovered the emissions sounds of humpback whales on US Navy recordings. Shows they called songs because they were composed of several sounds repeated at different frequencies.

These songs are primarily used by the whales to orient themselves in this dark world of theirs. The bottom of the oceans. But researchers suspect there are other functions to humpback whale song. As they are emitted by males, mainly in breeding areas, they imagined that it is love that the humpback whale sings. The trouble is that when researchers release “playbacks” of these songs, they come to nothing. No female seems attracted.

Their other hypothesis is that these songs serve to define a territory, to mark a position. While giving information on the health and perhaps the motivations of the whale which emits them. Just to inform those who might come across in the area.

The spectrogram of a humpback whale’s song. © University of Queensland

Appreciate the song of the whales to better preserve them

But what is perhaps even more amazing is that whale songs are changing. Slowly. They lose or gain vocalizations. From year to year. In fifteen years, the song of a humpback whale can thus be completely reworked. Ethologists speak of cultural evolution.

Because these evolutions are made in contact with other whales. The humpback whales are even able to learn incredibly complex songs from whales living in other regions. This is what researchers have observed between whales from New Caledonia, for example, and whales from the east coast of Australia.

This is the first time that researchers have observed such a level of cultural exchange between non-human species. On the migration routes or the feeding grounds that they share, the whales teach each other songs which they then repeat very precisely, without simplifying them and without omitting any sound whatsoever. And this, regardless of the complexity of the song. All with great efficiency, great speed since the songs in question change from year to year.

The humpback whale was recently removed from the list of endangered species. It’s good news. But this funny whale is not definitely out of danger. She must still remain under close surveillance. These startling observations made by researchers could help improve the effectiveness of conservation and management methods for the species. In the meantime, they are the sign that the humpback whale is not so stupid.

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