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Humpback Whale Dialects

May 16, 2011

Humpback whale songs undergo rapid cultural evolution in the South Pacific.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

A cultural revolution at sea…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

(Humpback whale song)

Male humpback whales sing long, elaborate songs to attract mates, and they learn new song types every year. University of Queensland marine biologist Ellen Garland and her colleagues studied how these novel songs spread across the South Pacific over an eleven-year period.

ELLEN GARLAND (University of Queensland):

What I’ve discovered is the song types tend to move in an easterly direction.

HIRSHON:

She says new songs originate in the East Australian humpback population and they spread in a wavelike fashion, taking about two years to reach whales in French Polynesia.

GARLAND:

The level and rate of these changes seem to be unparalleleled in any other non-human animals. We believe that the song tends to be spreading east because the east Australian population is the largest in the region and they tend to have more influence on the smaller Oceania populations.

HIRSHON:

I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.