Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 70, Issue 12, pp 2149–2160 | Cite as

The “risky” business of singing: tactical use of song during joining by male humpback whales

  • Rebecca A. DunlopEmail author
  • Michael J. Noad
Original Article


Balancing the costs and benefits of emitting a mating signal is complex. There are direct costs, such as time taken away from essential activities like feeding, and indirect costs, such as attracting unintended receivers, who may gain advantageous information from eavesdropping. As a consequence, the signaler may reduce his chances of mating if the costs outweigh the benefits. Male humpback whales (Megaptera noveangliae) sing. Although it is still unclear whether this signal is aimed at males, females, or both, it is generally accepted this is a breeding signal emitted in the presence of females. This study tested the hypothesis that the cost of singing in humpback whales is attracting other competitors to the group and therefore reducing the chances of the singer successfully mating. Males should therefore “choose” to sing only if the social conditions are not “costly.” We found that males were less likely to sing when joining another group if there were two or more adults already in the group (other competitive males), if there was another singing male in the area (a known competitor), and in higher group densities (resulting in an increased likelihood of having another group, and therefore other competitive males close by). This result was confirmed in later years, where the density of whales had increased substantially but the probability of a male singing while joining other animals had reduced. These groups were more likely to be joined by additional animals in higher density, “riskier” conditions, especially if they included a whale that had joined the group previously while singing. It seems, therefore, that male humpback whales will join other animals while singing when the ‘audience’ comprises of fewer competitive males to reduce the potential cost of attracting eavesdroppers to the group.

Significance statement

The likelihood of a male joining a group while singing was tested against within-group dynamics (number of additional competitive males, presence of a calf), the presence of a nearby singing whale, the nearest neighbor, and the number of groups in the area (group density). Whales were more likely to join groups while singing if there were no other competitive males in the group and no calf, if there were no other singing whales in the area, and if group density was low. In later years, group density substantially increased, resulting in a decrease in the likelihood of a whale joining a group while singing. Results suggest male humpback whales are monitoring their audience composition (surrounding conspecifics) and using this information to make “vocal decisions” when joining a group containing a female.


Audience effect Communication strategy Communication network Vocal eavesdropping Sexual signal 



The authors would like to thank everyone involved in the Humpback Acoustic Research Collaboration (HARC), and BRAHSS (the Behavioral Response of Australian Humpback whales to Seismic Surveys), in particular the numerous volunteers who donated their time and energy to this project. We also thank David Paton for his invaluable field expertise and Eric Kniest for his continued support in the development of Cyclopes and later VADAR. The authors would particularly like to acknowledge Dr. Douglas Cato for his continued advice and guidance and Jennifer Stollery for consolidating much of the raw data used for this study. Finally, the authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for the valuable input.

Compliance with ethical standards


This work was funded by The US Office of Naval Research (2002–2004), the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation (2002–2008), the Australian Marine Mammal Centre division of the Australian Antarctic Division (2008) and (together) the Joint Industry Programme on E&P Sound and Marine Life, and the United States Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) (2010 and 2011).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All work was carried out under permits from the Australian government Department of Environment and Water Resources and the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency and with animal ethics approval from the University of Queensland.

Informed consent

Informed consent was not required.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratory, School of Veterinary ScienceThe University of QueenslandGattonAustralia

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