QLD research gives insight into how whales learn songs

Research undertaken with help from the University of Queensland has indicated that humpback whales learn songs in segments – like the verses of a human song – and can even remix them.

This…may have relevance for understanding how human language…evolved.

Associate Professor Michael Noad from the University of Queensland said the research looked at populations of whales on Australia’s east coast and in the South Pacific. They found that whale songs appeared to be learnt in a similar way to how humans gain language skills, or how birds learn to sing.

“All the males in a population sing the same complex song, but the pattern of song changes with time, sometimes quite rapidly, across the population,” said Dr Noad.


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“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.”

He said the rate of change shows that whales are “constantly learning and updating their songs rapidly.”

Dr Ellen Garland, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, led the research. She said whales were able to remix songs in predictable ways – but only if the underlying structure was similar – and described it as a “striking” example of a non-human animal transmitting cultural traits.

“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,” said Dr Garland.

“When we found these rare ‘hybrid’ songs,” she said, “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 stitched 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.

“This provides some evidence for how animals rapidly learn large, complex displays and may have relevance for understanding how human language, the most outstanding example of social learning, evolved,” said Dr Garland.