Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A whale song is the collection of noises made by whales to communicate. The word "song" is used in particular to describe the pattern of predictable and repetitious sounds made by certain species of whales (notably the Humpback Whale) in a manner that to cetologists is reminiscent of a human singing.
Whales and other aquatic mammals such as dolphins and porpoises are much more dependent on sound for communication and sensation than their terrestrial cousins because the absorption of light by water makes sight difficult and because the relatively slow movement of water compared to air decreases the effectiveness of the sense of smell.
Production of sound
Humans produce sound by expelling air through the larynx. The vocal cords within the larynx open and close as necessary to separate the stream of air into discrete pockets of air. These pockets are shaped by the throat, tongue and lips into the desired sound.
Cetacean sound production differs markedly from this mechanism. The precise mechanism differs in the two major sub-families of cetaceans - the Odontoceti (toothed whales - including dolphins) and the Mystceti (baleen whales - including the largest whales, such as the Blue Whale)
Toothed whale sound production
Toothed whales do not make the long, low-frequency sounds known as the whale song. Instead they produce rapid bursts of high-frequency clicks and whistles. Single clicks are generally used for echo-location whereas collections of clicks and whistles are used for communication. Though a large pod of dolphins will make a veritable cacophony of different noises, very little is known about the meaning of the sound. One researcher characterized listening to such a school as like listening to a group of children at a playground.
The sounds themselves are produced by passing air through a structure in the head rather like the human nasal passage called the phonic lips. Every toothed whale except the Sperm Whale has two sets of phonic lips and is thus capable of making two sounds independently. The vibration caused on the phonic lip membrane passes through the tissue of the head to the melon which shapes and directs the sound into a beam of sound for echolocation.
Baleen whale sound production
Baleen whales do not have phonic lip structure. Instead they have a larynx that appears to play a role in sound production, but it lacks vocal chords and scientists remain uncertain as the exact mechanism. The process however cannot be completely analogous to humans because whales do not have to exhale in order to produce sound. It is likely that they recycle air around the body for this purpose.
Whilst most baleen whales make sounds at about 15-20 Hz. However marine biologists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported in the New Scientist in December 2004 that they had been tracking a whale in the North Pacific for 12 years that was "singing" at 52Hz. The scientists are currently unable to explain this dramatic difference from the norm, however say they are sure that the whale is baleen and extremely unlikely to be a new species, suggesting that currently known species may have a wider vocal range than previously thought.
The song of the Humpback Whale
Male Humpback Whales perform these vocalizations only during the mating season and so it is surmised they play a role in sexual selection. Whether the songs are a competitive behaviour between males seeking the same mate, or a "flirting" behaviour from a male to a female is not known.
Interest in the whale song was aroused by researchers Roger Payne and Scott McVay who analysed the songs in 1971. The songs follow a distinct hierarchical structure. The base units of the song (sometimes loosely called the "notes") are single uninterrupted emissions of sound that last up to a few seconds. These sounds vary in frequency from 20Hz to 10KHz (the typical human range of hearing is 20Hz to 20KHz). The units may be frequency modulated (i.e. the sound may go up, go down, or stay the same during the note) or amplitude modulated (get louder or quieter).
A collection of four or six units is known as a sub-phrase, lasting perhaps 10 seconds. A collection of two sub-phrases is a phrase. A whale will typically repeat the same phrase over and over for 2 to 4 minutes. This is known as a theme. A collection of themes is known as a song. The whale will repeat the same song, which last perhaps twenty minutes, over and over again over the course of hours or even days. This "russian doll" hierarchy of sounds has captured the imagination of scientists.
Further each whale's song will slowly evolve over time. For example, over the course of a month a particular unit that started as an "upsweep" (increasing in frequency) may slowly flatten to become a constant note. Another unit may get steadily louder. The pace of evolution of a whale's song also changes - some years the song may change quite rapidly, whereas in other years little variation may be recorded.
Whales occupying the same geographical areas tend to sing similar songs, with only slight variations. Whales from non-overlapping regions sing entirely different collections of units.
As the song evolves it appears that old patterns are not revisited. An analysis of 19 years of whale songs found that whilst general patterns in song could be spotted, the same combinations never recurred.
Humpback Whales may also make stand-alone sounds that do not form part of a song, particularly during courtship rituals. Finally the Humpbacks make a third class of sound called the feeding call. This is a long sound (5-10s duration) of near constant frequency. Humpbacks generally feed co-operatively by gathering in groups, swimming underneath shoals of fish and all lunging up vertically through the fish and out of the water together. Prior to these lunges, whales make their feeding call. The exact purpose of the call is not known, but research suggests that fish do know what it means. When the sound was played back to them, a group of herring responded to the sound by moving away from the call, even though no whale was present.
Other whale sounds
Most other whales and dolphins produce sounds of varying degrees of complexity. See the individual species articles for details (a list of species is maintained at cetacea). Of particular interest is the beluga which produces an immense variety of whistles, clicks and pulses and as such are often referred to as the "sea canary".
Whilst some observers suggest that undue fascination has been placed on the whales' songs simply because the animals are under the sea, most marine mammal scientists believe that sound plays a particularly vital role in the development and well-being of cetaceans. It may be argued those against whaling have anthropomorphized the behaviour in an attempt to bolster their case. Conversely pro-whaling nations are perhaps disposed to downplay the meaning of the sounds.
Those that do believe the songs are significant are particularly concerned by the general increase in ambient noise in many areas of the oceans. Research has shown that increased boat traffic in, for example, the waters off Vancouver, has caused Orca to change the frequency and increase the amplitude of their sounds, in an apparent attempt to get themselves heard. Environmentalists fear that such boat activity is putting undue stress on the animal.
- New Scientist, 11th December 2004, http://www.newscientist.com/
- Sound production, by Adam S. Frankell, in the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (pp 1126-1137) ISBN 0125513402
- BBC News, 28th February 2005. Unweaving the song of whales
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