Catchiest Mating Songs Spread Through Whale Populations Like Top 40 Hits

By Veronique Greenwood | April 16, 2011 8:55 am

All the single ladies, all the single ladies…

Whales catch earworms, too, show scientists from the University of Queensland in Australia in a new study. Each breeding season, males start out singing a new tune, which might incorporate bits of golden oldies or be entirely fresh. These new songs are then passed from whale to whale for 4,000 miles, usually starting from the western edge of the Pacific near Australia, a veritable humpback metropolis, to French Polynesia in the east, a comparative hinterland: a possible cetacean case of cultural trends starting in the big city and propagating to the country. Another hypothesis from the Hairpin:

What if Michael Jackson was reincarnated as a whale and is now living off the coast of eastern Australia? 

This MJ-style spread of songs is cultural transmission on a massive scale, a scale that hasn’t been seen beyond humans before. Over the course of 11 years, researchers saw (or rather, heard) these songs ripple across six whale populations and thousands of miles of ocean. One song even turned up in the Atlantic. There are several possibilities as to how, points out Wired Science: “The songs could be carried by males who move between populations, bringing new tunes. Humpbacks could also share songs while mingling on migrations.”

But why do the songs change and spread? Are males hoping a jazzier number will draw in more ladies? Are they trying to intimidate their male buddies? Unfortunately we’ve got almost no clue what attracts female whales: you can’t keep humpbacks in a tank for studies (besides the tank called the ocean), and it’s hard for researchers to track mating in the wild.

Maybe whales have “a sense of aesthetic judgment,” suggests one outside researcher (via ScienceNOW). It’s a fascinating idea, and opens up a whole new can of philosophical worms: What do whales find beautiful—and how do we study that?


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