Extreme diversity in the songs of Spitsbergen's bowhead whales

TitleExtreme diversity in the songs of Spitsbergen's bowhead whales
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsStafford, K. M., Lydersen C., Wiig Ø, and Kovacs K. M.
JournalBiology Letters
Type of Article10.1098/rsbl.2018.0056
EndNote Rec Number12017

Almost all mammals communicate using sound, but few species produce complex songs. Two baleen whales sing complex songs that change annually, though only the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) has received much research attention. This study focuses on the other baleen whale singer, the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus). Members of the Spitsbergen bowhead whale population produced 184 different song types over a 3-year period, based on duty-cycled recordings from a site in Fram Strait in the northeast Atlantic. Distinct song types were recorded over short periods, lasting at most some months. This song diversity could be the result of population expansion, or immigration of animals from other populations that are no longer isolated from each other by heavy sea ice. However, this explanation does not account for the within season and annual shifting of song types. Other possible explanations for the extraordinary diversity in songs could be that it results either from weak selection pressure for interspecific identification or for maintenance of song characteristics or, alternatively, from strong pressure for novelty in a small population.