Humpback Whales Borrow Songs from One Another as They Sail the Ocean

Do you remember the whale song that was sent to space via the twin Voyager spacecraft in 1977?

Maybe you were not born yet during that time. But the Voyager mission is the most remarkable feat of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with the twin spacecraft continuing their journey into interstellar space up to this time.

Photo: YouTube/Templeton World Charity Foundation

The spacecraft carries human greetings recorded in 61 languages, including chanting, music, and sounds of nature. And particularly, a humpback whale’s song. Scientists were hoping at that time that aliens from outer space would respond to it and the other messages.

Well, traveling to the edge of our solar system and beyond will take thousands of years for both Voyager 1 and 2. A very long time to wait for any alien life to respond. But right here on Earth, there are enough mysteries to solve to last us forever.

The humpback whale’s song. What makes it so special?

YouTube/Templeton World Charity Foundation

First, only male humpback whales sing. And the sounds they make are real songs, not just calls or vocalizations produced by other animals. Katy Payne, a researcher in acoustic biology at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, discovered that the sounds that humpback whales make have actual rhythms, melodies, and patterns.

Payne further explained that a local group of whales may memorize the same song. But, with time, some sections of the group’s song may change in pitch, duration, or rhythm. And eventually, it evolves into a new song!

Another recent, thrilling discovery about whale songs is that humpback whales can learn new songs from other groups of whales during migration quickly and accurately. This study was led by Dr, Jenny Allen at the University of Queensland, in collaboration with Opération Cétacés from New Caledonia.


Her team found out that the humpback whales of New Caledonia have been learning new songs from other humpback whales belonging to Australia’s east coast.

“By listening to the Australian humpback population, we were able to see if the songs changed in any way when sung by the New Caledonian whales,” said Dr. Allen. “We found they actually learned the exact sounds, without simplifying or leaving anything out. And each year we observed them, they sang a different song, so it means humpback whales can learn an entire song pattern from another population very quickly, even if it’s complex or difficult.”

Isn’t that amazing? These humpback whales sing beautifully like humans — and they learn from one another, just like us!

No wonder it was worth sending a whale song into space. It is one of nature’s marvelous wonders!

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