Australian researchers show whales' ability to exchange tunes

The findings showed that New Caledonian humpback whales were singing the same songs as whales off the east Australian coast. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (XINHUA) - A new study led by the University of Queensland has uncovered that humpback whales have the ability to learn complex songs from whales from other regions.

The findings, published in the Scientific Reports journal and released to the public on Friday (July 1), showed that New Caledonian humpback whales were singing exactly the same songs as whale populations off the coast of eastern Australia.

The New Caledonian humpback whales' migratory pathway passes along Australia's east coast as they head to Antarctic waters to feed during the winter months, the same feeding ground for pods of Australian whales.

The team of researchers observed the songs sung by each group of whales between 2009 and 2015. They found that each year, the New Caledonia whales would sing exact songs sung by whales in east Australia.

Lead of the study, Dr Jennifer Allen from University of Queensland's School of Veterinary Science, said the findings indicate a rare instance of cultural exchange in the animal kingdom.

"It's rare for this degree of cultural exchange to be documented on such a large scale in a non-human species," she said.

"It means humpback whales can learn an entire song pattern from another population very quickly, even if it's complex or difficult."

It is still unknown why whales sing, but leading theories suggest that it is related to mating.

Dr Allen told Xinhua that the research adds new evidence that whale song may be used in a variety of different contexts as it shows they are "sung a lot more frequently than we initially thought".

She said: "However, because the songs are learnt so accurately, it supports the idea that song exchange is occurring further down than the breeding ground areas, likely on shared migration routes in New Zealand or maybe their feeding grounds in Antarctica."

Each year, between August and November, about 40,000 humpback whales migrate along Australia's east coast migration corridor towards the Antarctic, before returning to the South Pacific between May and August.

Dr Allen added that the team was looking to compare the songs sung by whales off Australia's east coast and those off Australia's west coast.

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