Humpback Whale Song Findings
Humpback Whale Song Findings 2008-2009:
We are currently testing the hypothesis that the song may function as an index of association between individual males. That is, the song may be a means for individual males to recognize how closely associated they are with other males, and may determine if specific males cooperate or compete for females. This hypothesis requires testing to determine if correct, partially correct, or wrong. The testing is occurring in three separate studies supported by Whale Trust. We are currently investigating: a) whether song similarity is correlated with the geographical distance separating singers; b) whether similarities or differences in the song determine whom singers interact with through playback experiments; 3) different ways to measure cooperative versus competitive behavior of males when around a female (e.g., aerial study).
History of the Song Study
Roger Payne and Scott McVay first described the humpback whale song in a journal article “Songs of Humpback Whales” in Science in 1971. Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Roger and his wife Katherine described the structure and dynamics of the song. In 1978, the Payne’s began a study in Hawaii on which Jim Darling was an assistant. This work with the Payne’s eventually led to Jim’s Ph.D. work on the behavior of humpback whales. At that time virtually nothing was known about the actual singer: rarely had one been located and identified. The roots of our current investigation into humpback whale song developed during this time.
- 1978: First location, photo-identification and observation of individual singers
- 1979: First underwater location and observation of singers
- 1980-81: Determination that singers were males from underwater photographs of genital region and first observations of singer-joiner interactions
- 1983: Emergence of initial hypotheses on song function
Current Phase of Song Study: 1997-present
- 1997: The sex of singers and joiners, the lone whales that interact with singers, was determined genetically. All joiners were found to be males. From this work, it was clear that singing facilitates interactions between adult males.
- 1999: Singers were measured using aerial photogrammetry techniques, allowing the first comparisons of song characteristics to the size or age class of the singer. This first sample included only mature animals; however, unexpectedly, a marked variability was found in song presentation within this single age class, and even within one individual singer over a period of several hours. A new view of the song emerged with this indication that some aspects of the song may change depending upon the immediate social circumstances of the singer.
- 2001: Investigation of singers/joiners prior to, and after, the joining interaction, led to documentation of serial non-agonistic interactions between singers and other males. Some of these interactions resulted in the formation of pairs of males, which then approached a female (surrounded by other males) in a coordinated and apparently cooperative manner.
- 2003: With some male-male interactions non-agonistic and cooperative, yet others highly agonistic and competitive, we hypothesized that the song functions in some way to facilitate, reflect or order these variable male-male interactions. The first stages of testing this hypothesis are underway.
- 2006: The current working hypothesis is that the song organizes males during the breeding season, possibly through it providing a measure of association of different males, and this organization may account for the range of male relations around a female ranging from cooperative to competitive. This idea will be tested over the next few seasons, with detailed investigation of male-male relationships, analysis of song similarity versus degree of singer separation, and playback experiments where specific types of song are played to singers and their reactions measured.
- 2007: Abstract: Responses of humpback whale singers to playback of similar and different songs. Download PDF.
Please view our publications page to discover more about our research findings to date.
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