Scientists finally figure out why whales like to jump out of the water.

By Seriously Science | November 29, 2016 6:00 am

Even if you’ve never gone whale-watching or made it all the way through Moby Dick, you probably know that humpback whales are known for jumping out of the water and slapping the surface with their fins. But why whales engage in these “surface-active behaviors” has long remained a mystery… until now! These scientists watched 94 different groups of whales to discover that loud noises made by jumping and slapping the water may actually play a role in communication between nearby groups of whales. Yet another whale-related mystery solved!

Evidence for the functions of surface-active behaviors in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)

“As part of their social sound repertoire, migrating humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) perform a large variety of surface-active behaviors, such as breaching and repetitive slapping of the pectoral fins and tail flukes; however, little is known about what factors influence these behaviors and what their functions might be. We investigated the potential functions of surface-active behaviors in humpback whale groups by examining the social and environmental contexts in which they occurred. Focal observations on 94 different groups of whales were collected in conjunction with continuous acoustic monitoring, and data on the social and environmental context of each group. We propose that breaching may play a role in communication between distant groups as the probability of observing this behavior decreased significantly when the nearest whale group was within 4,000 m compared to beyond 4,000 m. Involvement in group interactions, such as the splitting of a group or a group joining with other whales, was an important factor in predicting the occurrence of pectoral, fluke, and peduncle slapping, and we suggest that they play a role in close-range or within-group communication. This study highlights the potentially important and diverse roles of surface-active behaviors in the communication of migrating humpback whales.”

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  • Ahmet Hakan

    Thank you. This description is really nice.

  • Ahmet Hakan

    Where is Archer?!?

  • Tayvl

    Maybe they only like to do it when other groups can’t hear it…

  • bekindandfair

    1. Not trying to attract a prospective mate at a long distance?
    2. Not trying to observe the environment above the water?
    3. Did any in the groups beyond 4,000 meters respond in the same manner or travel to the group slapping?
    4. Does sound from the slapping travel further than any other sound they can make?

  • OWilson

    Cows have tails to swat flies and parasites, bears find trees to scratch their back, could it be that whales carry a lot of excess baggage in the form of parasites and a good bellyflop discourages, if not removes the little buggers.

    Or could it be something more spiritual, metaphysical and Darwinistic, as a vestige of the urge to leave the water and find a new niche on land, or even the air.

    Like our successful ancestors did?

    • Pat Gorman

      Other way around OWilson.
      They are mammals,not fish.
      They evolved on the land and returned to the water.

      • OWilson

        Ah, thanks for the lecture, but, you don’t understand evolution.

        There is no rule that says a species must stay in it’s evolved niche. :)

        • Pat Gorman

          It was a different species when it was on land 50+ million years ago.
          (As was its cousin… the present day hippo.)

          • OWilson

            Do you believe there’s anybody here that doesn’t know that? :)

          • I’mNotInCharge

            I didn’t know that. I mean I have Google, but… technically I didn’t know that.

            OWilson, what are you implying differently than the proposition of this study? It seems a pattern was found that fits this narrative. You disagree with it?

  • RAW

    They like to feel gravity.


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