, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp 93-102

Song copying by humpback whales: themes and variations

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Abstract

Male humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) produce long, structured sequences of sound underwater, commonly called “songs.” Humpbacks progressively modify their songs over time in ways that suggest that individuals are copying song elements that they hear being used by other singers. Little is known about the factors that determine how whales learn from their auditory experiences. Song learning in birds is better understood and appears to be constrained by stable core attributes such as species-specific sound repertoires and song syntax. To clarify whether similar constraints exist for song learning by humpbacks, we analyzed changes over 14 years in the sounds used by humpback whales singing in Hawaiian waters. We found that although the properties of individual sounds within songs are quite variable over time, the overall distribution of certain acoustic features within the repertoire appears to be stable. In particular, our findings suggest that species-specific constraints on temporal features of song sounds determine song form, whereas spectral variability allows whales to flexibly adapt song elements.