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Study aims to find out if whale songs have shared phrases

Whale researcher Nan Hauser, left, with conservationist J-P Rouja (Photograph supplied)

A newly launched study of whale song in Bermuda waters could reveal what “phrases” are shared across groups as humpbacks pass the island.

All humpbacks make noise underwater – but only the males are known to sing.

Marine biologist Nan Hauser, who helped launch the “Sound of Science” Bermuda whale song project, said: “My feeling is they’re singing to attract females.

“They’re trying to impress the females by showing their lungs are bigger, they can hold their breath for longer – but my feeling also is there is so much more to it.

“Efforts are being made to figure out what they’re saying, but I doubt we’ll ever know. We as humans are so different from them.

“But the question it poses is, are the songs being passed around the world? What’s being shared between whales of the northern and the southern hemispheres?”

Ms Hauser is president of the Centre for Cetacean Research and Conservation based in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific, where she has recorded humpback whale songs for 24 years.

Studying hundreds of whale songs has enabled a consortium of scientists in the Pacific to trace how humpbacks share elements of their songs.

Ms Hauser said: “We call it horizontal cultural transmission.

“The whales are literally passing phrases of songs across a huge ocean basin.”

Ms Hauser and the Bermudian conservationist J-P Rouja of Nonsuch Expeditions headed ten miles out to record a whale after the island’s whale song project got its research permit last week.

She said: “In that song, I’d heard a lot of those phrases before.”

The group is to give a talk on their project at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute in Hamilton next Wednesday.

Bermuda was the birthplace of humpback recordings in the 1950s when Frank Watlington, a Bermudian, worked with the US Navy on underwater microphones to track Russian submarines during the Cold War.

Ms Hauser said Bermuda and the Cook Islands were in in a corridor for whale migrations.

She added that her family came to the island regularly in her childhood and stayed at Marley Beach on the South Shore – where humpbacks could be seen in the springtime.

Ms Hauser said: “I fell in love with whales here. I really wanted to know what they were doing underwater.

“People have to realise that whales are bioengineers. If we had enough whales on the planet we could control climate change.”

She highlighted a phenomenon called the “whale pump” in which the animals bring nutrients to the surface, feeding the growth of plankton, which draws carbon from the atmosphere.

The Bermuda whale project follows on from recording made three years ago from a partnership with Cornell University in the US.

Cornell, based in Ithica, New York State, is still involved, along with Ms Hauser’s organisation.

The project continues to seek long-term funding.

Mr Rouja said listening devices were being placed on the sea floor in deep water sites.

Some devices can transmit sound to land and the group is exploring the provision of whale audio at the BUEI.

Other situations require going out to the whales and putting a hydrophone over the side of a boat.

Mr Rouja said: “It’s more than recording the whales. We’re also identifying the DNA from the skin that the whales shed into the water.”

The genetic material holds information such as the sex of the animal, and its clade or ancestral group.

But the recordings need to be free of interference, with the whale photographed and identified.

Ms Hauser said: “Everyone should hear their song. It’s magical. In the Cook Islands I get clear, beautiful sound. That’s what I want to get here.

“We get familiar sounds, common sounds in some of the phrases. The song is made over four or five different phrases, but even then, we’re thinking of it in human terms.”

She emphasised that she doubted the songs could ever be deciphered.

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Published March 31, 2022 at 7:42 am (Updated March 31, 2022 at 7:42 am)

Study aims to find out if whale songs have shared phrases

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