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Scientists Just Discovered a Quirk of Whale Songs

Humpbacks sing an increasingly complex tune for years, then drop it for something simpler
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 26, 2018 5:17 PM CST
A humpback whale breeches off Half Moon Bay, Calif.   (AP Photo/Eric Risberg,File)

(Newser) – Researchers studying the songs of humpback whales have discovered a quirk of the undersea music: The whales sing the same song for a few years, adding individual embellishments and making it increasingly complex all the while. And then, poof, they switch to a simpler tune and start the cycle over again. In fact, lead researcher Jenny Allen of the University of Queensland refers to this switch as a "cultural revolution" in a UQ news release. So why the abrupt change to a new tune? One theory is that the songs become so complex that the whales reach their limit of being able to learn new material, according to the study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The researchers studied 412 song cycles from 95 singing whales over 13 years, per Science. While the whales generally sing the same song, the researchers found that individuals add their own touches, perhaps to help them stand out. (Only the males sing.) Another part of the pattern: Whale populations sometimes pick up a new tune from a different population—such as when eastern Australian humpbacks meet their western counterparts at a common feeding ground. Smithsonian likens this to a game of whale "telephone." But the same pattern follows: The songs begin simple and grow more complex until they're ditched altogether for a new one. (A beached whale provided unfortunate proof of plastic pollution in the sea.)

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