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Sounds of the ocean...more to whale communication than we might think?

Updated: Dec 29, 2021


Even from the early stages of scientific research, it was evident that there were mammals out there who have so much more to offer us than we could ever have imagined when we first started scientific research into the ocean.

It would take years, decades even, for us to even come close to unravelling their world; From their hunting and migration patterns, breeding and family life, even the way they communicate with each other, and we are still unravelling information today…

The way mammals behave is universal, we share the same experiences in different ways and always have done. This includes communication; we communicate in different ways but the act of communication itself is unique to each species but shared between us all.

How we as humans communicate with each other or with our fellow species, such as dogs, or how predators communicate with their prey or how species communicate with sexual interests for mating is incredible and goes beyond our imagination.

Communication is all inclusive and possibly one of the most complex things we share on this planet. This means discovering more about other species communication habits can be one of the most interesting (and time consuming) research projects, but it can also expand our knowledge not just on one specific project, but it can help teach us about ourselves.

This is what researchers from the MBARI (Montery Bay Aquarium Research Institute) at Stanford University have spent time looking into.

Whales are some of the largest mammals on earth, travelling up to thousands of miles at a time. Living in the ocean gives them a vast amount of ground to cover and their migration habits are long. So, communication, especially over far distances, is essential to Whales. Whether it be for mating, food or just company, as we know whales are rather social creatures, living within families or pods.

Five years into research on whale communication and sound, a microphone that was sent out from MBARI itself was found to have been catching and recording all sorts of ocean sounds, the most important and possibly most interesting being the sounds of the whales.

While the scientists spent a lot of time analysing the sounds they picked up from the microphone that had been deployed, their focus was primarily on whales, and once they started focusing on the sounds and calls of whales they started to notice a pattern in their communication over time.

"This was a very striking signal to observe in such an enormous dataset, and led us to ask the questions: what drives these population-level patterns in song, and do these patterns indicate changes in blue whale behavior through the seasonal cycle?" lead researcher William Oestreich, a doctoral candidate in biology at Stanford University, told UPI in an email. (Hays, 2020)

Due to the patterns they started to see in the whale song, researches decided their best follow up move would be to tag the whales they came across to help extend their research further and deepen their understanding of why these whales vocalisations had a pattern and what could it mean.

What they discovered was that the whale’s sound patterns were based on their feeding and migration.

Whales feed on krill, their main source of diet. This means they do the majority of their feeding and hunting in the daytime, as that’s when krill are most densely packed together and out in the open ocean feed on.

Under the blanket of night is when whales appear to sing or become more vocal, we assume this is because they have swapped out feeding time for show time, using the hours where they aren’t using their large mouths to feed to communicate with one another just as we would.

Whales tend to migrate and when they do, they do a lot less feeding, this is because they are not stopped in one set location for an extended amount of time, giving them less time to feed. They travel on energy stored from their set feeding times before migration.

Their daytime hours are not focused on hunting while their nights are still focused on opera, while travelling they swap their feeding habits for more regular singing ones, as when they’re on the move it is possible to be vocal at the same time as swimming.

When they are in a standstill, recharging for their continued journey and feeding in the day, they go back to their regular routine of singing at night time.

Although we do not yet know exactly why whales tend to sing so much, especially when on the move, it is thought that they sing more when they migrate to potentially communicate with other whales for mating. A communication for breeding during migration.

Not only is it important to understand why whales vocalise and possibly what their vocalisations may mean to learn more and further our own research but their migration patterns can be vital to us.

"We are now better able to monitor when these blue whales are migrating in relation to changes in the ecosystem they inhabit,” Oestreich said.” (Hays, 2020)

Knowing their patterns of migration can encourage more specific protection in certain areas, not just for Whales specifically but for krill, as whales need krill to survive. Understanding where their journeys take place means we can do more to help with their survival and protection. The research done by these scientists will help the future of whales and further whale research.

The more we learn about whales the more we can do to help and protect them, just because of their great size does not mean whales are protected from all dangers, they are at risk of being threatened by things such as pollution, climate change, plastic waste and more. The more work we do, such as tracking their migrating habits, the more we can do to help protect the parts of the oceans they most often inhabit.

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