How Whale Songs Rocket to Number One

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There’s no accounting for musical taste — particularly when the kind of music you’re talking about doesn’t even originate in your own species. Bird songs may be lovely, but whale songs? Say what you will about the combination of whoops, clicks groans and faintly flatulent rumbles that whales use to communicate and woo, the odds are pretty good you’ve never gotten one them stuck in your head.

To the whales themselves, however, this is chart-busting stuff. And like the Top 100 too, the most popular whale songs change over time. In a study just published in Current Biology, a team of marine biologists from the University of Queensland and the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium have tracked those changes, determining not only how long whale songs stay current before they’re replaced, but where in the world’s oceans the news songs originate — essentially where the cetacean Motown is — and how they ripple outward.

To conduct the research, the investigators analyzed patterns in whale songs recorded over the course of a decade in six different Pacific Ocean populations. The whale pods farthest west were located around Australia; the ones farthest east were in the vicinity of French Polynesia. The other four were scattered at various points in between.

In general, the researchers found, new whale songs first popped up among males in the Australian pods, moving slowly eastward over the course of about two years. Whales that adopted the new tunes would typically do so quickly — with all of the members of the community singing from the same songsheet within a single mating season. Sometimes the new songs would simply be variations on old ones with fresh notes mixed in; other times they would be entirely different compositions. Significantly, it was rarely the whales themselves that migrated west to east — just their music. (Listen to the songs here.)

“Our findings reveal cultural change on a vast scale,” said Queensland grad student Ellen Garland, who participated in the research. The songs moved in “cultural ripples, from one population to another.” In only one case was a song found to move east to west.

The reason for the uni-directional flow, Garland and the other investigators believe, is that the westernmost whale populations are also the largest. That means that the odd male might break off and migrate, taking his catchy new tune with him, or that the sheer number of whales in the big pods singing a tune together could become audible to neighboring pods even over oceanic distances.

Just why whales are so receptive to new songs is a bit of a mystery — as is the very purpose of the songs for that matter. Most biologists believe that singing is a prelude to mating, but others believe it may serve more as a way to warn other males to stay away (which, given the single-mindedness of so many male mammals — Homo sapiens included — is ultimately about mating itself.) Quickly adopting a new song is a way to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pod, meaning that you either sound sexier to the females or scarier to the other guys.

Serendipitously, the new study was released at the same time as an unrelated paper, published in the journal Science, which shows something similar about human beings. Not only did our species originate in Africa, the paper argues, so did spoken language. The study was conducted by University of Auckland biologist Quentin Atkinson, who counted up the discrete phonemes in languages around the world, and found that the closer a population is to Africa, the greater the number of these distinct sounds  it uses. African languages, for example, may exceed 100 phonemes; English has just 45; native Hawaiian — spoken in the most distant region studied — is built from just 13.

Human language may always be more complex than whale songs, but the twin studies do suggest one more way in which we are similar to our big-brained mammalian cousins. Memes, tunes and ideas don’t go viral only on land, it seems, but rather in the deep ocean as well, where smart critters can be fast learners too.