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Inside of a Whale

May 15, 2014

Scientists are just beginning to understand the specialized anatomical features that allow whale songs to propagate underwater.



How whales sing. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Humpback whales communication by sending vocal signals through the water. (Geoporter/Ficker)

Humpback whales communicate by sending vocal signals through the water. (Geoporter/Ficker)

Whales communicate by sending sound waves through the water. But their vocal system evolved from that of land animals, who breathe air. To understand the anatomical adaptations that amplify whale song underwater, comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg of the Icahn School of Medicine, really tries to get inside her subjects. She studies dead whales that washed ashore or were beached.

JOY REIDENBERG (Icahn School of Medicine):

I’m only 5 feet tall. So dissecting one of these whales literally means cutting your way into a hole in the whale, standing inside that hole covered head to toe in protective gear, and then dissecting out the organs that you need. And it often involves using heavy machinery.


She and her team have discovered that whales possess not only vocal folds within the trachea and larynx that produce sounds, but also vocal sacs, which probably amplify those songs underwater. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.