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Astonishing bowhead whale song diversity discovered

Bioacoustics, Science Add comments

FramWhen a University of Washington researcher listened to the audio picked up by a recording device that spent a year in the icy waters off the east coast of Greenland, she was stunned at what she heard: whales singing a remarkable variety of songs nearly constantly for five wintertime months.  In a paper just published in the journal Endangered Species Research, and freely available online, Kate Stafford and her co-authors report on acoustic monitoring that took place in the winter of 2008-9 in the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Spitzbergen, a key channel for water circulation between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.  

Quite unexpectedly, Stafford found that bowhead whales were singing “almost constantly from the end of November until early March,” with over 60 distinct songs being recorded during these months of deep winter darkness.  It is presumed that these were mating calls, as are the famous humpback whale songs.  However, the researchers stress:

The song diversity noted here is unprecedented for baleen whales. Whether individual singers display 1, multiple, or even all call types, the size of the song repertoire for Spitsbergen bowheads in 2008 to 2009 is remarkable and more closely approaches that of songbirds than other baleen whales.

Also fascinating is the stark difference in types of calls in the two recording locations.  The diverse and continuous singing took place under “a dense canopy of ice cover, (which) may provide a better acoustic habitat for the transmission and reception of song when compared to loose pack ice.” Lead author Kate Stafford notes, “It’s clear there’s a habitat preference. As Arctic sea ice declines, there may be some places like this that are important to protect in order to preserve a breeding ground for the bowhead whales.” 

Download the paper
Read a summary of the work from University of Washington
Listen to a couple of sound samples


One Response to “Astonishing bowhead whale song diversity discovered”

  1. Bob Hilscher Says:

    Hi there, Arctic bowhead whales are one of the most amazing animals I have had the opportunity to observe, and photograph. For anyone interested, I have posted some of my pictures, and stories, from my three week trip off Baffin Island at: