Even whales need to stand out from the crowd.
Researchers from Curtin University have discovered how they do it: through song.
Like humans, it seems whales feel compelled to express their individuality, especially when surrounded by others.
And what could be more authentic than original composition?
The Curtin findings are based on recordings of pygmy blue whales visiting a site called Perth Canyon, a deep submarine channel west of Rottnest Island.
Marine biologists had always thought members of this species weren’t all that creative, assuming they simply repeated the same song endlessly.
But the researchers changed their tune after analysing the recordings.
PhD student Capri Jolliffe says the whales showed way more variation than anyone realised, especially when lots of individuals were present.
“We found that when the pygmy blue whales became surrounded by other calling whales, they began shortening and breaking up their songs while using higher signal levels,” she says.
“We observed that the whales were continuously communicating with varying song structures as if they wanted to identify themselves as being different and stand out from the crowd.
“The variations in the whales’ songs allowed us to better understand how they interact when other calling whales are around them.”
No one knows for sure why whales sing but the Curtain team thinks variation may be a way of identifying themselves to others.
Study co-author Robert McCauley says the changes were evident during peak migration period, between March and April, when the area becomes more crowded.
“We identified three different song types that were used and even hybrid song patterns where the animals combined multiple phrase types into a repeated song,” Professor McCauley says.
“We believe that the high level of song variability may be driven by an increasing number of background whale callers creating ‘noise’ and thereby forcing the animals to alter song in order to make themselves distinct from the rest of the crowd.”
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