Humpback whales can learn and memorise complex songs from whales in other regions

Described as a “level of ‘cultural transmission’ beyond any observed non-human species”, a new study has revealed that humpback whales can learn incredibly complex songs from whales from other regions.

Dr Jenny Allen, whose doctoral work at UQ’s School of Veterinary Science led to the study, explained how researchers have discovered that New Caledonian humpback whales were able to learn songs from whales on Australia’s east coast. What’s more, the whale songs were extremely complex and the whales have mastered them with remarkable accuracy.

“This really indicates a level of ‘cultural transmission’ beyond any observed non-human species,” she commented.

humpback whale
© Konart

‘Humpback whales can learn an entire song pattern from another population very quickly, even if it’s complex or difficult’

The University of Queensland-led study looked closely at the song patterns of male humpback whales from each region between 2009 and 2015 and examined how culture transmits between the populations.

The complexity of the whale song was determined by measuring both the number of sounds the whales made and the length of the sound patterns.

Dr Allen explains: “By listening to the Australian humpback population, we were able to see if the songs changed in any way when sung by the New Caledonian whales.

“We found they actually learned the exact sounds, without simplifying or leaving anything out.

“And each year we observed them they sang a different song, so it means humpback whales can learn an entire song pattern from another population very quickly, even if it’s complex or difficult.”

Where do the whales pick up these songs from?

Songs are likely being learned on shared migration routes or shared feeding grounds. This may be migration routes in New Zealand and feeding grounds in Antarctica.

“It’s rare for this degree of cultural exchange to be documented on such a large scale in a non-human species,” Dr Allen said.

“We hope these findings provide a model for further study into understanding the evolution of cultural communication in animals and humans.”

Humpback whale populations need to be carefully managed

Humpback whales are no longer considered endangered, but their populations still need to be carefully managed, warns Dr Allen. She hopes that these findings could help.

“Having an in-depth understanding of a species is known to greatly improve the efficacy of conservation and management methods,” Dr Allen said.

“We now have a more holistic picture of the behaviours, movements and interactions of different humpback whale populations, including how they transmit culture.

“It means we’re better equipped to protect them against the many threats they face as our climate, and planet, continue to change.”

The research is a collaboration with Opération Cétacés from New Caledonia and has been published in Scientific Reports.


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