Serenaders of the Seas

A cool article in the New York Times about the complexity, and the real purpose, of humpback whale song. Much of the article is based on this paper that suggests potential “cultural revolutions” in humpback whale songs (paper summary below).

Reports of humpbacks on Abaco (here and here). I actually was fortunate to take a swim with a humpback off the coast of Andros over a decade ago (a shame I can’t find those pictures). And when discussing marine mammals in The Bahamas always remember to check out the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization website.

One loyal Abaco Scientist follower has been pleading with me to read the book War of the Whales. I haven’t gotten there yet, but it looks excellent.


Abstract: “Cultural revolutions reduce complexity in the songs of humpback whales“….

Much evidence for non-human culture comes from vocally learned displays, such as the vocal dialects and song displays of birds and cetaceans. While many oscine birds use song complexity to assess male fitness, the role of complexity in humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) song is uncertain owing to population-wide conformity to one song pattern. Although songs change gradually each year, the eastern Australian population also completely replaces their song every few years in cultural ‘revolutions’. Revolutions involve learning large amounts of novel material introduced from the Western Australian population. We examined two measures of song structure, complexity and entropy, in the eastern Australian population over 13 consecutive years. These measures aimed to identify the role of complexity and information content in the vocal learning processes of humpback whales. Complexity was quantified at two hierarchical levels: the entire sequence of individual sound ‘units’ and the stereotyped arrangements of units which comprise a ‘theme’. Complexity increased as songs evolved over time but decreased when revolutions occurred. No correlation between complexity and entropy estimates suggests that changes to complexity may represent embellishment to the song which could allow males to stand out amidst population-wide conformity. The consistent reduction in complexity during song revolutions suggests a potential limit to the social learning capacity of novel material in humpback whales.

By | 2019-01-13T10:24:02-05:00 January 13th, 2019|Categories: Endangered species, Marine Mammals|1 Comment

About the Author:

Craig Layman
My lab’s interdisciplinary pursuits provide for a multi-faceted understanding of environmental change in the coastal realm. We are ecologists, asking questions that span population, community, ecosystem and evolutionary sub-disciplines. We often use a food web based perspective, exploring top-down (e.g., predation) and bottom-up (e.g., nutrient excretion) mechanisms by which animals affect ecosystem processes. All of our efforts are framed within a broader outreach framework, directly integrating science and education, using approaches such as this website.

One Comment

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    Rolling Harbour June 12, 2019 at 5:07 am

    Hi Craig, just caught up with this (6 months late!). Fascinating. Also, cool BMMRO link…

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