Bowhead whales may be the most versatile and creative singers in the sea, according to a recent study.
Researchers out of the University of Washington recorded vocalizations of the 60-foot arctic behemoths over a span of four years, revealing a repertoire of more than 180 completely unique songs. Until now, it was assumed that bowheads communicated only in short grunts and moans, like many of their cetacean counterparts.
“We were hoping when we put the hydrophone out that we might hear a few sounds,” said lead author and oceanographer Kate Stafford in a statement. “When we heard, it was astonishing: Bowhead whales were singing loudly, 24 hours a day, from November until April. And they were singing many, many different songs.”
While other whales—particularly humpbacks—are well known for their lavish anthems during mating season, their songs remain relatively unchanged year after year. Bowheads, on the other hand, create entirely new ballads each season.
“When we looked through four winters of acoustic data, not only were there never any song types repeated between years, but each season had a new set of songs,” said Stafford.
Each complex song lasts between 45 and 150 seconds and repeats for hours, sometimes even days. Stafford likens the combination of creaks, rattles, and wails to the distinctive rhythm of jazz: “If humpback whale song is like classical music, bowheads are jazz.”
Because the males are the only singers, it’s likely that the songs are an effort to impress females is a courtship display; perhaps a unique way to demonstrate their dominance and quality as a mate.
Whatever the reason, we can now marvel at the elaborate sounds of these incredible creatures that were nearly hunted to extinction 4 centuries ago. Listen!
The full research article can be found in Biology Letters.