Male Fin Whales Spread Their Songs Across the Sea

They have multiple song patterns and spread them to other whale groups.

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Finback or Fin Whale Swimming the Waters Outside Dana Point, California
Fin whale off the coast of Dana Point in Southern California. Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

Whales communicate with all sorts of noises, but some species are most well known for their singing. Humpback whales produce complex vocalizations. Males may make these haunting sounds to attract mates, to communicate their location, or to ascertain the friendliness of other males.

Fin whales also sing. The second-largest mammal in the world after blue whales, these massive whales are found in all the major oceans. They’re known for their namesake dorsal fin and distinctive coloring: dark on top and white underneath. And, until a recent study, scientists thought that the male fin whale sang just one simple pattern of notes and that song was distinct to the males in his own group and region.

“Previously, marine mammal scientists thought that individual fin whales sang with a single song pattern,” study co-author Tyler Helble of the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific in San Diego tells Treehugger. “They believed that each group used a unique rhythm of notes that could be used to identify that group.”

The study, published in Frontiers in Marine Science, suggests that these gigantic sea mammals not only have several different songs, but they can spread them to other parts of the ocean, likely through migrating whales

For the study, researchers used underwater microphones, called hydrophones, to record the songs and locations of 115 whale encounters near Kauai, Hawaii, over a six-year period between January 2011 and January 2017.

Though the hydrophones were in place year-round, they only heard whale songs from late fall to early spring each year. Male fin whales in the Pacific emit just two distinct very low notes. They produce them in various rhythms to create a song. Researchers found that fin whales sang primarily in five different song patterns.

“We found fin whale song to be much more complex than what had been described in previous research,” Helble says. “Individual fin whales actually interweave multiple song patterns together in their repertoire.”

Cultural Transmission

Fin whales are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Nearly 725,000 fin whales were killed by hunters for fat, bone, and oil in the Southern Hemisphere through the late 1970s, until commercial whaling ended. The IUCN estimates there are about 100,000 animals today with numbers increasing.

Fin whales are migratory, with complex movement patterns as they go seasonally from breeding to feeding locations. It’s during these migrations that the males could be sharing their songs with males from other groups, researchers say.

“There are indications from this research that fin whale song is more fluid than previously thought, and the song may change through cultural transmission between populations,” coauthor Regina Guazzo, also of the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, tells Treehugger.

“The fin whale population size and structure in the North Pacific is still very uncertain, and so learning about the song could help us understand population dynamics in this region. Ultimately, this understanding can help us better manage and protect one of the world’s largest animals.”