Research on humpback whale song as a cultural phenomenon was conducted by Dr. Ellen Garland for her PhD work, which she completed in 2011. Her research investigated the cultural transmission of humpback whale song and metapopulation structure in the South Pacific Ocean.

The use of songs by humpback whales across the western South Pacific region

This project investigated the change and subsequent transmission of humpback whale song throughout the South Pacific region over the last decade. Male humpback whales produce long, complex 'songs' that are thought to function in mating. All males within a population sing the same song but the song changes rapidly over time. All males must incorporate these changes to maintain song similarity.

Populations within an ocean basin have similar songs with this similarity dependent on geographical distance between populations. The main populations being investigated in the region are eastern Australia, New Caledonia, Tonga, American Samoa, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. Previous studies have demonstrated similarities among the songs of the South Pacific populations and eastern Australia for a particular year, or from one population over time, but none examined the dynamic nature of song change within the region.

Results show songs are horizontally culturally transmitted from eastern Australia in the west across the region to French Polynesia in the east. Quantifying how and where song changes are happening and tracking their subsequent spread will hopefully produce a better understanding of population structure in the region. This project was undertaken in collaboration with the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium. (Project leaders: Ellen Garland and Michael Noad). 

Male Humpbacks Change Their Tune from The University of Queensland on Vimeo.

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