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The Bowhead Whale: One of the Ocean’s Top Musical Performers

by Holly Chavez Blog

Researchers have recently turned their attention to bowhead whales (also known as the Greenland right whale), and it turns out that this species might be one of the most musical of all.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Greenland

Highlights: Bowhead Whale

The Bowhead Whale: One of the Ocean’s Top Musical Performers

There have been several recordings released of whales singing in the ocean, but these tracks usually highlight the musical style of the blue whale, humpback whale, fin whale, minke whale or the orca whale. Due to this, many people who head out on an ocean expedition do not think about the possibility of encountering other whales that have a lot to say. Fortunately, researchers have recently turned their attention to bowhead whales (also known as the Greenland right whale), and it turns out that this species might be one of the most musical of all.

A Wide Variety of Tunes 

Although it has been long known within the marine biology world that bowhead whales are musical, an extensive study into their songs was only completed in December 2014. Researchers recorded the singing of a group of migrating bowhead whales in 2011, and several experts were involved in decoding the many factors that make each tune stand out. The most fascinating part of their discoveries is the fact that these mammals have a large repertoire of songs and apparently share them with each other.

Bowhead Whale tail © Amos Nachoum

New Discoveries 

The knowledge that bowhead whales can sing is not new, but experts involved in the latest research project were surprised to learn just how prolific their library of song actually is. In total, 12 completely new songs were discovered. This means that none of these tunes had ever been recorded before from any type of whale. There were 32 individual whales involved in this study, and they were all located near Point Barrow in Alaska.  

Song Sharing

Humans throughout recorded history have shared their musical ideas with others, and this has led to the creation of everything from classic folk songs, to today’s Billboard chart topping hits. We understand that people use song lyrics as a way to catalogue a diverse list of emotions and current social events, so it makes perfect sense that other species would do the exact same thing. The latest research into the bowhead whale found that each of the new songs were intricate enough that their duplication could not be a coincidence. In other words, it appears that whales share their new musical creations with each other. 

Are Some Songs More Well-Liked Than Others?

We use Billboard’s record charts to determine which songs are the most popular at any given time. Although a number one ranking is by no means indicative of a song that is enjoyed by everyone, it does showcase which piece of music resonates with the majority of consumers. We know that whales are extremely intelligent, so it does not take much of a leap to conclude that they are capable of picking out favorite pieces of music and ignoring the tunes that they do not like. The 2011 recordings found that only about half of the unique songs were picked up by other whales and added into their repertoire. This gives us a fascinating insight into the way whales communicate and develop personal preferences. It also highlights yet again the fact that these ocean-dwelling mammals are not all that different from humans. 

What Makes the Music of Bowhead Whales Unique?

Whales seem to love singing, but the bowhead whale has a unique musical trait that excites researchers. Unlike every other whale species, the bowhead whale frequently changes the type of music that it sings, and they also vary their tunes according to the seasons. Experts believe that these alterations are important for social and reproductive purposes. In other words, when a bowhead whale starts singing a new song, they are essentially providing every other whale in the nearby area with their version of a Facebook status update. 

Other species will repeat the same songs year after year, and any changes that are made are adopted by all of the whales nearby. Eventually, an entire species such as the blue whale will be able to incorporate the alterations, even if they are thousands of miles away from the origins of the new notes. Meanwhile, four different groups of bowhead whales have been studied, and none of these populations sing the same songs as each other. In other words, group A has a completely different song list than group B, and this is a very unusual variation from every other singing whale species. 

Bowhead Whale Viewing 

Although many of the musical notes that are sung by bowhead whales cannot be heard without using special equipment, it is still very exciting to see whales in their natural habit during an Arctic cruise. As an added bonus, people participating in a Greenland cruise are sometimes able to hear some of the calls that these magnificent mammals make.

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