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Whales songs indicate where they’ve been — where they were born

Humpbacks swap songs at remote group of islands in the South Pacific.

Image source: Nico Faramaz/Shutterstock
  • A whale's song reflects its geographical and social history.
  • A new study identifies for the first time a major migratory crossroads where whales meet.
  • The discovery sheds light on the mystery of how whale songs evolve across the Pacific.

To the northeast of New Zealand in the South Pacific lie six islands referred to as the Kermadec Islands. The group has a dark history with whales since sperm whales, humpbacks, and southern right whales where nearly hunted to extinction there in the past. That's changed, though, and what would be the largest marine preserve in the world is under consideration for these islands: the 620-square-kilometer Kermadec Sanctuary.

Humpback whale songs have long been an area of fascination and study. What are they for, and what do they mean? We know that there are songs associated with different breeding grounds, but these songs tend to grow in length and complexity over the course of a whale's lifetime, becoming more and more difficult to parse.

Researchers suspect that at least some of the embellishments come from other whales encountered along the way, providing clues about a whale's social history and where it comes from. However, the mechanism that would allow sharing across such widely spaced migratory routes to summertime feeding grounds in Antartica has been a puzzle.

The authors of a report published this month in Royal Society Open Science have just confirmed the scientists' hunch by filling in this blank. It turns out the Kermadecs — and in particular Rangitahua/Raoul Island — are a major crossroads at which the many migratory paths traveled by Oceania whales converge. This is where whales meet and exchange tunes, a few of which the researchers have now unraveled.

Where the twain meet

It's been known that whale songs tend to cross in waves eastward across the South Pacific, from Australia to French Polynesia, over the course of about three years. "While convergence and transmission have been shown within a whale population during migration and on their wintering grounds, song exchange and convergence on a shared migratory route remained elusive," recalls Dr. Ellen Garland of the University of St. Andrews.

There's evidence of song sharing within groups, but not so much across them. The convergence of different routes near the Kermadecs changes that. Says St. Andrews' Dr. Luke Rendell, "Song themes from multiple wintering grounds matched songs recorded at the Kermadecs, including a hybrid of two songs, suggesting that multiple humpback whale populations from across the South Pacific are traveling past these islands and song learning may be occurring."

Raoul Island

Image Source: NASA

Songs of the sea

During September and October 2015 the researchers from the School of Biology at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K. recorded the songs of whales passing by the Kermadecs. The also captured songs at whale feeding and breeding locations east and west of Australia, and across the western and central parts of the South Pacific.

Their careful transcriptions of recordings from 52 whales overall resulted in the identification of three basic types of songs. As in human music, songs are comprised of groups of themes, which are groups of phrases, which themselves are groups of notes.

  1. Most common in the central Pacific — near the Cook Islands and French Polynesia — was Song Type. 1.
  2. Song Type 2 was heard most frequently in the western ocean, near Tonga, West Caledonia, and Niue.
  3. Coming exclusively from just east of Australia was Song Type 3.

Most of the songs recorded were Type 2 songs, from the western Pacific. Almost none came from east Australia, and only a few from the central ocean. Two of these, labeled in the study as Songs 1a and 1b, were quite similar.

By comparing similarities and difference in themes and phrases researchers were able to tell where each whale had been born, confirming these identifications with photographs and genetic markers.

There are likely other migratory junctions at which new phrases and themes may be exchanged, but the Kermadecs are the first such place that's been found.

Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?

According to the Great Filter theory, Earth might be one of the only planets with intelligent life. And that's a good thing (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]).
Surprising Science

Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.

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Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
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Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

A girl and her mother take an afternoon nap in bed.

Personal Growth
  • We spend 40 percent of our childhoods asleep, a time for cognitive growth and development.
  • A recent study found an association between irregular sleep patterns in childhood and either psychotic experiences or borderline personality disorder during teenage years.
  • The researchers hope their findings can help identify at-risk youth to improve early intervention.
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