Humpback whales learn new songs as they migrate, scientists say

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Humpback whales can learn new songs from each other as they make their annual migration, scientists have said.

Researchers have discovered similarities in whale songs recorded at the Kermadec Islands in the South Pacific Ocean and songs from multiple locations where they spend the winter, from New Caledonia to the Cook Islands.

The study, led by the University of St Andrews centred on the Kermadec Islands, a set of tiny volcanic islands around 600 miles (1,000km) northeast of Auckland, which were recently found to be a migratory stopover for the whales.

Scientists already knew the huge mammals shared songs as they migrated across the ocean, the songs spreading across breeding populations from Australia to French Polynesia.

It is a process that can take up to three years.

Scientists from the university’s School of Biology, working with the University of Auckland, have found that, in addition to sharing songs, migration may help them learn new ones.

Dr Luke Rendell, from the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews, said: “Song themes from multiple wintering grounds matched songs recorded at the Kermadecs.

Those songs included “a hybrid of two songs, suggesting that multiple humpback whale populations from across the South Pacific are travelling past these islands and song learning may be occurring.

“Our results are consistent with the hypothesis of song learning on a shared migratory route, a mechanism that could drive the eastern transmission of song across the South Pacific,” she added.

Dr Ellen Garland, also from the University of St Andrews, said: “Our research has revealed the migration patterns of humpback whales appear to be written into their songs.

“While convergence and transmission have been shown within a whale population during migration and on their wintering grounds, song exchange and convergence on a shared migratory route remained elusive.”

Humpback whales, which can grow to more than 50 feet (15m), are found in every ocean in the world and are famous for their singing.

Male humpbacks produce a long series of calls that are normally heard during the winter breeding season.

The same song may be repeated for several hours, in spite of the groups sometimes being up to 3,100 miles (5000km) apart.

Researchers are not certain why humpback whales sing, but believe the songs may be used to attract females or mark territory.

Credit: Sky News

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