Since the early 1990s, researchers have been recording the strange and beautiful songs of humpback whales. These recordings have revealed that humpback whale songs are complex and often change from year to year. Some scientists believe that these changes may be a form of communication, but no one is sure why whales sing jazz.
Why do whales sing jazz?
The songs of the whales constantly vary and exhibit striking vocal qualities. They communicate through a large repertoire of sounds ranging from whistles, clicks, to very melodious intonations. But why do they do it?
The humpback whale lives in the cold Greenland Sea. This species of humpback whale has the habit of varying its songs annually. Cetaceans have always caught our attention because of this singular faculty, that of emitting sounds, often endowed with harmony and complexity. Other times, they are limited to simple bursts of high-frequency clicks or whistles.
However, why do they do it? Why are they broadcasting these songs? Marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins and porpoises, depend much more on sound than we do for their survival. After all, in the aquatic environment, sight and smell lose part of their potential and functionality.
However, sound travels four times faster in water than in air. It has more impact. This means that most mammals accustomed to this scenario depend on it to interact and explore. However, why do animals like humpback whales emit the most original, rhythmic and captivating songs? We analyze it here.
Although both sexes sing, it is the males that emit more complex and longer lasting tones.
The whales sing jazz: their acoustic qualities are fascinating
Whales are social creatures that live in groups of several individuals, also called “groups”. The first thing we could answer when asked why they sing is that they do so to communicate with each other, court each other, and even inquire about the proximity of food and schools of fish.
Obviously, this is the case, after all, the processes of communication between all social groups fulfill these purposes. However, biologists and experts in bioacoustics (the study of animal sounds) suspect that such a complex register of clicks, whistles and chirps serves more of a purpose. It is possible that these wonderful marine mammals also sing for fun.
Naturalists and cetologists warn of the risk that increased marine environmental noise poses to the lives of whales. Ships and constant marine seismic surveys affect their health and survival.
Humpback whales and jazz: singers who like to improvise
That same year, psychologist Eduardo Mercado of the University at Buffalo published a revealing study on the behavior of cetaceans. As he explained in this work in the form of a metaphor, whales sing jazz. In other words, they are able to improvise their songs and demonstrate extraordinary acoustic qualities.
They don’t just create a sequence of sounds and repeat it like birds do. Their creations are more spontaneous, flexible and creative. Moreover, sometimes, in the same group of whales, some can copy the song of another for an instant and instantly vary this acoustic pattern, bringing their “personal imprint”, as jazz musicians do.
Likewise, it should be noted that it is the male humpback whales that produce the most complex and extensive songs. They can spend hours broadcasting their musical records and be heard over 30 kilometers away. They sing in all seasons, but more frequently in winter, coinciding with courtship and breeding.
What function do their songs have?
Ketologists, as well as Dr. Mercado himself, point out that whales are intrinsically motivated to sing: they enjoy it. It is true that the emission of certain sounds, such as classic high-frequency whistles or clicks, has multiple purposes, such as the following:
Clicks allow you to differentiate between friendly creatures and predators. Also to communicate with each other.
Whales can emit specific songs to warn of the proximity of a school of fish.
Their sounds would in turn have echolocation functions, thus resembling the acoustic register of bats more than the song of birds.
Also, it is interesting to know that whales also use non-verbal communication. They do this through their tails and fins by generating “slaps” or thumps on the surface of the sea.
On the other hand, experts emphasize the importance of differentiating social communication from the mere personal expressiveness of each individual. The idea that whales also sing to make themselves known is gaining more and more value. They could even use their songs and vocal records as sonar signals.
Different vocal “dialects” have been found between different groups of whale pods.
Whales sing and inspire each other
It has been seen that humpback whales, which occupy the same geographical area, sing similar songs, but with some variations. Remember, they are like jazz singers, able to imitate acoustic pieces, but improvising them in their own way. The social learning of marine cetaceans is so striking that it is inevitable to compare it to human behavior.
Whales learn songs from each other and imitate them like when we learn the chorus of a song and hum it in our own style. They nourish each other musically, inspire each other, transmit acoustic patterns from one generation to another and even form dialects between packs.
To conclude, while it is true that we have not yet fully solved the mystery of why whales sing, there is one aspect that is unmistakable. Their songs fascinate and disturb us, they have something atavistic, a nuance that is both mystical and terrifying. These ocean gods hold secrets that we may never discover, but in the meantime, they deserve our full respect and also our protection.
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Vogue Health Team