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Cognitive control of song production by humpback whales


Singing humpback whales are highly versatile vocalizers, producing complex sequences of sounds that they vary throughout adulthood. Past analyses of humpback whale song have emphasized yearly variations in structural features of songs made collectively by singers within a population with comparatively little attention given to the ways that individual singers vary consecutive songs. As a result, many researchers describe singing by humpback whales as a process in which singers produce sequences of repeating sound patterns. Here, we show that such characterizations misrepresent the degree to which humpback whales flexibly and dynamically control the production of sounds and sound patterns within song sessions. Singers recorded off the coast of Hawaii continuously morphed units along multiple acoustic dimensions, with the degree and direction of morphing varying across parallel streams of successive units. Individual singers also produced multiple phrase variants (structurally similar, but acoustically distinctive sequences) within song sessions. The precision with which individual singers maintained some acoustic properties of phrases and morphing trajectories while flexibly changing others suggests that singing humpback whales actively select and adjust acoustic elements of their songs in real time rather than simply repeating stereotyped sound patterns within song sessions.

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Availability of data and materials

All song sessions analyzed in this paper are available either through Google’s Pattern Radio online recording database, available at, or as FLAC recordings available at

Code availability

Customized Matlab scripts used to analyze sounds are available from E. Mercado on request.


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The data analyzed in this study are a subset of NOAA data collected in the Pacific Islands made available to the general public through joint efforts by Google Creative Labs, Google AI for Social Good, and the NOAA Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center.


No funding was provided for the data analyses reported in this paper.

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Correspondence to Eduardo Mercado III.

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Mercado, E., Ashour, M. & McAllister, S. Cognitive control of song production by humpback whales. Anim Cogn 25, 1133–1149 (2022).

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