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Verse by verse, piece by piece and then remixing everything together – that is how whales learn new songs

Posted July 28, 2017

For whatever reason, humpback whales are always singing the same song in their community. It does change over the years, but general features of the song remain. Whales learn from each other and remix these songs, making them more up to date as they start to age. Now scientists say that humpback whales learn new songs pretty much like humans.

How do you learn a new song? Just in case you’re not into music much, tried imagining that you’ve been given a task to learn a song you’ve never heard before. You would probably study it in pieces – verse by verse you would quickly memorize the entire song. Scientists say that this is pretty much how humpback whales learn new songs too. Except they don’t have to read lyrics and they cannot keep clicking “Replay” on their computers. They have to partake in something that is called “social learning”.

Humpback whales always sing the same song in the community, but they do not learn it from their parents. Image credit: Whit Welles via Wikimedia(CC BY 3.0)

Social learning is a simple concept of education – individual animals learn behaviours from each other rather than having them passed on from one generation to another genetically. Humpback whales, especially males, sing the same song over and over again. However, it does evolve over time, but it does so consistently throughout the community. It means that humpback whales learn to sing new songs, but they do so together, by adapting to each other. Scientists recorded many individual singers from several populations to try and grasp that moment of changing. They wanted to see how and why it happens and how other whales learn the new song so quickly.

Basically, scientists wanted to find songs that have features of both old and new songs. Michael Noad, one of the authors of the study, said: “When we found these rare ‘hybrid’ songs, the themes of the songs, either old or new, were intact, showing that the whales probably learn songs theme-by-theme like the verse of a human song.”

Sometimes whales would change from the old to a new song in the middle of singing. Or from the new one back to old. But they did so in themes that were the most similar between both songs. In other words, whales found ways to bridge old and new melodies that they were singing.

This is quite interesting, because humans also use social learning – this is how we adapt to certain situations. And humpback whales seem to show the most striking examples of the transmission of a cultural trait and social learning in any non-human animal.  However, we don’t expect to see any practical implications of this study any time soon.


Source: University of Queensland

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