Whales learn songs like humans do

Humpback whales learn songs in segments – like the verses of a human song – and can remix them, a university study has found.

The study showed whale songs appeared to be learnt a similar way to how humans acquired language skills or a bird learnt its warble.

“All the males in a population sing the same complex song, but the pattern of song changes with time, sometimes quite rapidly,” said researcher Professor Michael Noad of the University of Queensland.

“Learning new songs is a form of what's known as 'social learning', which is where individual animals learn behaviours from each other rather than having them passed on from one generation to another genetically.

“The rate of change shows they are constantly learning and updating their songs rapidly.”

Dr Noad said whales could combine segments of songs in predictable ways if the underlying structural pattern was similar.

“We recorded many individual singers from several populations, including the eastern Australian population and other populations in the South Pacific,” he said.

“We looked for songs that were caught in the act of changing; songs that had some of the old song as well as some of the new song.

“We found these rare 'hybrid' songs, the themes of the songs, either old or new, were intact, showing that the whales probably learn songs theme-by-theme, like the verse of a human song.

“The other interesting thing was when they switched mid-song from old to new or new to old, it was during a theme most similar to another theme in either old or new songs.

“These themes may have been used as a way of bridging the old and new songs and therefore help with social learning.”

Dr Noad said this may have relevance for understanding how human language, the most outstanding example of social learning, evolved.

The study, Cultural transmission in humpback whales: insights from song hybridization events during revolutionary song change, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal.

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