Arctic jazz: Bowhead whales improvise when singing, study says


Some whales are enchanting jazz riffs to new depths.

For the first time, scientists have listen ined year-round on the songs of bowhead whales, the little-heard whales that wander the Arctic under the ice. They found that bowheads — the bigger, multitudinous blubbery cousins of the better known humpbacks — are more prolific and flat jazzier than other whales.

“Bowhead whales are the jazz troubadours of the Arctic. You don’t know what they’re going to do. They inject uniqueness,” said University of Washington oceanographer Kate Stafford.

Over three years a isolated underwater microphone captured 184 distinct bowhead whale songs, coinciding to Stafford’s study in Wednesday’s Biology Letters. That’s remarkable because there are possibly only a couple hundred males in an area between Greenland and Norway to boost the songs, Stafford said.

Researchers recorded a male bowhead whale piping 1:40

Stafford and her colleagues couldn’t track specific songs to individual whales to skilled in for sure, but given the wide variety of songs they think each mans has a different song, and that they likely change from mature to season.

In contrast nearly all humpback males sing versions of the unchanging song every winter, Stafford said. “Humpback whales are standard music singers. They make long elaborate songs but their melodies are really ordered and almost predictable.”

A bowhead whale swims barely under the surface with its mouth open in Fram Strait. (Kit Kovacs/Norwegian Opposite Institute)

Until now, biologists would hear only snippets of bowhead flaps in other Arctic areas. They have many recordings of humpback songs because there are various humpbacks and they travel much further south.

Singing for sex

Scientists mark only male bowheads sing and that they are singing for sex, play it by earing to try to attract females with the best rendition of songs. Stafford said she was reminded of Miles Davis on his “Nags Brew” album. Though she admitted bowhead music isn’t for everyone.

“I upon the songs to be quite beautiful, but some people compare them to fingernails on a chalkboard,” Stafford stipulate. “They’re scream-y. They’re yell-y and they’re quite funny.”

This map of Fram Hot water has a green dot showing where the hydrophone was located from 2010-2014. This icy division is only accessible to ships in late summer. The hydrophone was moored close by 80 meters below the surface in water 1,020 meters occupied. (Kate Stafford/University of Washington)

Bowheads — which can live to be 200 years old and are little short of 60 feet long — start with very high notes, soften their tune quite a bit and at times make two completely different reports at the same time.

“We don’t know how they do that,” Stafford said. Anthropoids can’t, but some birds can, she said.

Syracuse University biology professor Susan Deposits, who wasn’t part of the study, praised the research as “a huge step leading” in learning about bowhead songs, showing surprising novelty and mix.

“The diversity of signal types uncovered by this study suggests that something altogether different is going on with bowhead whale song,” Parks decried in an email.

One of Stafford’s favorites makes repeated riffs of “woo-woo-woo” but with varying modulations. She’ll often just turn the songs on her cell phone and blessedness out.

“These guys are great mimics. They can imitate ice,” Stafford symbolized. “They make the nuttiest songs.”

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