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How do whales communicate with each other?

The post of this week talks about baleen whale communication, it is, cetaceans that feed thanks to the presence of baleen plates in the mouth. In concrete, we will focus on the acoustic communication in baleen whales and, in specific, in the humpback whale case.

INTRODUCTION

Bradbury and Vehrencamp defined the term communication like the process in which an information is given through a signal from a speaker to a receiver and this receiver uses this information to decide how to respond or if the receiver responds to the signal.

There are several types of communication among marine mammals, either chemical, visual, tactile or acoustic. Due to solar light has a delimited capability to penetrate into the water, whales and other marine mammals have difficulties on visual communication with each other from a certain distance, so they use sound. In addition, chemical communication is not efficient in the aquatic environment.

COMMUNICATION PROCES IN BALEEN WHALES

Production and reception of sound

While anatomical structures related with the production and transmission of sound have been found in odotocetes (cetaceans with teeth), they have not been found in the case of baleen whales (mysticetes). Baleen whales, despite they present larynx, don’t have vocal chords. However, it is accepted that cranial sinuses, empty spaces in the skull, are involved in phonation, but its role is unclear.

The big whales are by far the most resounding marine mammals. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) produce songs that last some hours and can be heard long distances (some kilometres). Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalis) don’t fall behind: they produce low frequency sounds that travel more than 3,200 km of distance. In fact, blue whales produce sounds around 190 decibels, the loudest sound produced for an animal.

La balena blava (Balaenoptera musculus) pot generar sons de fins a 190 db (Foto: iTravel Cabo).
Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) can produce sounds of 190 decibels  (Picture: iTravel Cabo).

Some behavioural studies have demonstrated that all cetaceans, but specially odontocetes, have a good hearing.

Function

While some experts defend the idea that this sounds are used to communicate each other at long distances, other suggest that are used to detect the underwater relief to orientate (echolocation). Anyway, it is more accepted that they have a communicative function, including behaviours like exhibition and the establishment of the territory, among others.

THE CASE OF HUMPBACK WHALES

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) produce complex sounds that can be heard to long distances. They are one of the most resounding baleen whales. During winter, in the breeding grounds, these whales produce long and complex songs at the same zone. These songs are different in the different zones. These songs (you can hear one of them here) lasts 10-15 minutes, but they can sing them for hours, and are composed by themes, phrases and subphrases. Each subphrase lasts some seconds and are composed by low frequency sounds (normally under 1,500 Hz).

Estructura del cant de les balenes de gep (Megaptera novaengliae) (Foto: Hawai's Marine Mammal Consortium).
Structure of a humpback whale song (Megaptera novaeangliae) (Picture: Hawai’s Marine Mammal Consortium).

But the complexity doesn’t end here. The structure of this musical pieces changes along winter. Not only they change the frequency and duration of the phrases and themes, but also some of them are changed by new compositions. Moreover, they also modified the composition and sequence of these themes.

Anyway, all the whales at the same area sing the same song and all of them modify it at the same rate to other mates. So, they learn from other mates.

Some studies highlighted that adult males are the only that produce this songs. So, it indicates that this songs play a role in reproduction, similar to bird songs. Therefore, these songs indicate to females the sex, the species, the position and that he is ready to compete with other males and he is ready for mating.

In addition, according to Mobley y Herman (1985) the fact that males sing at the same time stimulates the synchronization of the ovulation of the females.

El cant simultani dels mascles estimula la sincronització de la ovulació de les femelles de balena de gep. (Foto: Yellowmagpie).
The fact that males sings at the same time produce the synchronization of the ovultion of females of humpback whale (Picture: Yellowmagpie).

REFERENCES

  • Berta A, Sumich J & Kovacs KM (2006). Marine mammlas. Evolutionary biology. Ed. Academic Press (2 ed)
  • Day (2008). Guía para observar ballenas, delfines y marsopas en su hábitat. Ed. Blume
  • Perrin WF, Würsig B & Thewissen JGM (2009). Ed. Academic Press (2 ed)
  • Reeves RR, Stewart BS, Clapham PJ & Powell JA (2005). Guía de los mamíferos marinos del mundo. Ed. Omega

Difusió-anglès

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