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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.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?

Videos
  • From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
  • "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
  • Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.

COVID-19 brain study to explore long-term effects of the virus

A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.

Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.

Coronavirus
  • The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  • The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
  • Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
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Better reskilling can future-proof jobs in the age of automation. Enter SkillUp's new coalition.

Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.

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