Groups of humpback whales copy and remix each others’ songs in a human-like attempt to be fashionable, according to research carried out in Australia.
Songs that start in whale populations off Australia’s east coast gradually spread further east to French Polynesia as the tune catches on with other populations. Sometimes the songs are covered note for note, sometimes they are mixed with other songs and occasionally they are changed completely if deemed a flop. Only male Humpbacks sing, with researchers believing they do so either to attract females or warn off other males.
Interestingly, whales closer to Australia seem to be the trailblazers as the songs usually travel from west to east. It takes around two years for catchy tunes to work their way from Australia to French Polynesia.
Ellen Garland of the University of Queensland was on the team that spent 10 years looking for patterns in the songs of six whale populations in the south Pacific. She believes the songs move from group to group as one population overhears and adopts a new tune. “Songs were first learned from males in the west and then subsequently learned in a stepwise fashion repeatedly across the vast region,” she says. “The reason we believe the song tends to travel east is because the eastern Australian population is the largest in the region and has a greater influence than the smaller Oceania ones.”
The songs can evolve at different rhythms, with whales often experimenting with old and new material. “It would be like splicing an old Beatles song with U2,” says Garland. “Occasionally they completely throw the current song out of the window and start singing a brand new song.
“The way whales change their song can be compared to how humans follow fashion trends – someone starts a new trend and before you know it everyone starts wearing the same thing.”