Arxiu d'etiquetes: humpback whale

Cetaceans with dialects: the killer whale and the sperm whale

Last week, the press was full of news about a recent article that highlight that sperm whales in the Eastern Pacific have distinct dialects. For this reason, the post of this week will explain what a dialect is (in cetaceans), which cetaceans have dialects in addition to sperm whales and which is the explanation to this. 


The first question to be answered is “What is a dialect?”. This question is not simple because sometimes this concept is confused with another one: geographic variation. While dialects are song differences between neighbouring populations of potentially interbreeding individuals, geographic variations refer to differences in song over long distances and between populations which normally do not come together. In the case of dialects, the explanation of their presence is social learning, while in geographic variations the reason can be found in their genes. The function of dialects is to be an acoustical signature that help maintain cohesion and integrity of groups and as an inbreeding avoidance mechanism.


To date, dialects have been described in two cetacean species: killer whales (Orcinus orca) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). These two species have several features in common:

  • They live in matrilineal groups, that are highly stable groups of individuals linked by maternal descent that protect themselves against predators and other dangers.
  • They live in multilevel societies, that consist of hierarchically nested social levels. From the upper to the lowest level, there are three levels: vocal clans, social units and individuals. This kind of societies are also present in human and other primates and in African elephants.


Dialects have been found in resident killer whales from the northeastern Pacific, Norway and Kamchatka. In this species, these dialects consists on repertories of several call types that are different among pods. Each pod have distinctive features in the call repertories and, therefore, each pod has a particular dialect. Pods that share part of the repertories constitute acoustic clans. So, each clan is acoustically different. Pods from different clans can overlap and interact and new pods can be formed by fission of other pods, which turn out in divergence of dialects.

Killer whales are one of the cetacean species with dialects (Picture: Oceanwide Science Institute).
Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are one of the cetacean species with dialects (Picture: Oceanwide Science Institute).


Sperm whales have repertories that varied in the proportional usage of different coda types and classes. Sperm whale codas are stereotyped sequences of 3-40 broad-band clicks usually lasting less than 3 seconds in total, which functions are to help maintain group cohesion, reinforce bonds, aid negotiations and collective decision-making. These groups with distinct dialects also interact. To give a particular example, in the South Pacific and the Caribbean, there are six sympatric acoustic clans based on coda sharing, which simultaneously differ in movement and habitat use patterns and in feeding success.

Dialects have been described in sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) (Picture: CBC News).
Dialects have been described in sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) (Picture: CBC News).


A recently published article in the magazine Nature suggests a mechanism that may explain the origin of multilevel societies in sperm whales. As we have seen, it is in these societies where dialects are present in cetaceans. So, here we will explain the origin of multilevel societies in sperm whales as an example.

In sperm whales, the upper level of the multilevel society are clans of individuals that communicate between them using similar codas. These clans are originated from cultural transmission via biased social learning of codas, when they learn the most common codas (conformism) from behaviourally similar individuals (homophily). Thus, the result are groups with increasingly homogeneous behaviour with a strong integration. The cultural transmission plays a key role in the partitioning of sperm whales into sympatric clans (clans that live together but without interbreeding). So, it is in these clans where distinctive behavioural patters may appear, like dialects. The lower level, social units, are originated from ecological, cognitive and time constraints and benefits.

Multilevel societies (Picture: Marc Arenas Camps).
Multilevel societies. Individuals (stars and filled circles) are the lowest level and in association (black lines) with other individuals they constitute social units (empty black circles). Socials units with acoustic similarity (orange lines) form vocal clans (blue and green). It is in vocal clans where dialects can emerge (Picture: Marc Arenas Camps).


The differences in the songs of humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae) cannot be considered dialects since they happen between geographically isolated populations. Due to a geographic and reproductive isolation, these differences have appeared as a result of genetic distinctions among populations.


  • Cantor, M; Shoemaker, LG; Cabral, RB; Flores, CO, Varga, M & Whitehead, H (2015). Multilevel animal societies can emerge from cultural transmission. Nature Communications. 6:8091. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms9091
  • Conner, DA (1982). Dialects versus geographic variation in mammalian vocalizations. Animal Behaviour. 30, 297-298
  • Dudzinski, KM; Thomas, JA & Gregg, JD (2009). Communication in Marine Mammals. In Perrin W, Würsig B & Thewissen JGM (edit.). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press (2 ed).
  • Ford, JKB (2009). Dialects. In Perrin W, Würsig B & Thewissen JGM (edit.). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press (2 ed).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


  • 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


Whale migration is changing due to global change

Results of a research that took place from 1984 to 2010 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Canada, North Atlantic Ocean) about changes in migration patters of whales due to global change have been published this March on Plos One. In this post, you are going to find a summary of this article.


Global change (wrongly called climate change) is a planetary-scale change in the Earth climate system. Despite of being a natural process, in the last decades the reason of the changes is human because we have produced an increase of the carbon dioxide’s realise due to fossil fuel burning.


Global change is a challenge for migratory species because the timing of seasonal migration is important to maximise exploitation of temporarily abundant preys in feeding areas, which, at the same time, are adapting to the warming Earth. Other driving forces are the use of resources like mates or shelter. This is the case of fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) and humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), which feed on a wide variety of zooplankton and schooling fish. This zooplankton grows due to an increase of phytoplankton, which grows for the increasing light and nutrients during summer. Remember that in this post you can read about the feeding behaviour of humpback whales. This is not the first time that it has been reported changes in migration species’ home ranges in both summer and wintering areas and alterations of the timing.

Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) (Picture from Circe).
Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) (Picture from Circe).
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaengliae) (Picture from Underwater Photography Guide).
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) (Picture from Underwater Photography Guide).

It is observed a general pattern in migratory species: they use high-latitude summer regions to take advantage of high productivity and abundance of their preys and some of them reproduce during this period. Generally, long-distant migrants seem to adapt less well to climate change than short-distant migrants.

humpback whale migration
The case of humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) migration. (Picture from NOAA).

Most baleen whales begin seasonal migrations from few hundreds to thousands of kilometres, alternating between low-latitude winter breeding grounds to high-latitude summer feeding grounds. The response of marine mammals to global change has been predicted:

  • More pole-ward distribution and more beforehand arrival in feeding areas to follow changing prey distribution.
  • Longer residency time in higher latitudes in response to enhanced productivity.


The article’s results show that fin and humpback whales arrived earlier in the study area over the 27 years of the study. Nevertheless, the rate of change of more than 1 day per year is undocumented. Both species also left the area earlier, as observed in other species. Humpback whale departure changed at the same rate as arrival, so it keeps a constant residency time. On the other hand, fin whales have increased the residency time from 4 days to 20 days. However, that increase is subject to small sample bias in the first two years and there is only weak evidence that fin whales increased their residency time.

Mean first and last sighting date in fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) and humpback whale (Megaptera novaengliae) (Data from Ramp C. et al. 2015).
Mean first and last sighting date in fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) and humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) (Data from Ramp C. et al. 2015).

In addition, the results suggest that the region represents only a fraction of the potential summer range for both populations and both species just spend a part of the summer. What is clear is that both species showed the same behavioural adaptation and advanced their temporal occurrence in the area by one month.

Other studies have reported that gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) have probably ceased to migrate annually in Alaska (Stafford K et al. 2007).


It seems that fin whale arrival in the Gulf follows the shift in the date of the ice break up and the sea surface temperature (SST) serves as a signal to the whales that it is time to move back into the Gulf. There was a time delay of 13-15 weeks between when this area became totally ice-free and their arrival. This has also seen in Azores, where fin and humpback whales arrive 15 weeks after the start of the spring bloom to feed on it when en route to high latitude summer feeding grounds.

The influence of SST in January in the Gulf may have triggered an earlier departure of humpback whales from the breeding grounds and thus earlier arrival in the Gulf.

These two species of whales are generalist feeders and their arrival in the Gulf is related to the arrival of their prey. The improvement of the temperature and light conditions and earlier ice break-up (together with higher SST) leads to an earlier bloom of phytoplankton followed by the earlier growth of zooplankton. Therefore, the earlier arrival of fin and humpback whales enables timely feeding on these prey species. A 2-weeks time lag between the arrival of fin and humpback whales lets humpback whales fed at a higher trophic level compared to fin whales, what reduces competition.


Global change shifted the date of arrival of fin whales and humpback whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Canada) at a previously undocumented rate of more than 1 day per year earlier (over 27 years) thus maintaining the approximate 2-week difference in arrival of the two species and enabling the maintenance of temporal niche separation. However, the departure date of both species also shifted earlier but at different rates resulting in increasing temporal overlap over the study period indicating that this separation may be starting to erode. The trend in arrival was strongly related to earlier ice break-up and rising sea surface temperature, likely triggering earlier primary production.


This post is based on the article:

  • Ramp C, Delarue J, Palsboll PJ, Sears R, Hammond PS (2015). Adapting to a Warmer Ocean – Seasonal Shift of Baleen Whale Movements over Three Decades. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0121374. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0121374

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Feeding behaviour of Humpback whale

This publication talks about Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). In particular, we are going to do an small introduction and we are going to focus on feeding behaviour of this animal, specially in a particular strategy devoloped for a group in west coast of Alaska.


Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, is a cetacean of the Balaenopteridae family that live in all the oceans, in oceanic and coastal waters. They measure between 12 and 16 meters (the females are lightly bigger than males) and they weight between 25 and 35 metric tons.  They eat krill and fishes.  We can identify them using different things: the caudal fin, with a visible central groove and with a cut edge, raises before it dives; the pectoral fins are very big and rounded, with a dark top and light bottom; the head is wide and has nodules on the top and also has nodules on bottom mandibule; and they have a big body, with a black – dark grey back and sides and a white abdomen.




About feeding behaviour, they have developed different amazing methods. The most known is called the bubble net, used to capture shoals of fishes. Other least sophisticated methods consists on swim against the fishes or hit the water with fins to stun them.

Now we are going to talk about the net bubble method. This one has been observed in a population from west coast of Alaska. During the summer, in the Alaska’s fjords there is a lot of plancton, what attract the herrings (Clupea harengus), which used to live in the depths to be protected from the predators. When humpback whales detect the fish, they do jumps and hits to advertise the other members. This method needs a lot of coordinaiton. Following the leader, they dive together and then each one adopt its position: there are the shepherds, who surround the shoal with fin movements with the goal of avoid the fishes escape; another member is placed under the shoal and produce a shout of 120 decibels to force the fishes to go up; and there is another member in the top that expel an air current to create a bubble net. The other members are under the fishes and jump against them with the mouth totally open. This technique allows to capure a half ton of fish every day.
bubble net

Author: Richard Palmer

I recommed seeing this video:

If you want more information, you can look for it here:

– DAY, Trevor. Guía para observar ballenas, delfines y marsopas en su hábitat (Ed. Blume)

– KINZE, Carl Christian. Mamíferos marinos del Atlántico y del Mediterráneo (Ed. Omega)

– PERRIN, W. F.; WÜRSIG, B; THEWISSEN, J. G. M. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (Ed. Academic Press, 2ª edició)

– Gigantes del mar, episodi 2:


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