Underwater Pop: Whales Dig New Tunes

About five years ago, researchers discovered that whales have brain cells of a type only found in humans and other great apes. Spindle neurons were previously believed to be the thing that “set us apart” from other species because they’re involved in the process of emotion and social interaction. Specifically, “[t]he cells occur in parts of the human brain that are thought to be responsible for our social organisation, empathy, speech, intuition about the feelings of others, and rapid ‘gut’ reactions.”

In the time leading up to (and even more intensely so in the time since) this breakthrough, scientists have been studying cetacean interactions by recording whale songs. After sorting through 745 songs from six different whale populations, a surprising pattern has emerged: whales follow musical trends. Just as pop songs and memes spread through our human population, whales change tunes from east coast (of Australia) to west coast (that’s French Polynesia) in the space of a year or two. In humpback whale populations, the popular song within a group changed over just a couple of months. Without Internet access, that’s pretty fast.

So what does this cultural evolution imply about the brains of our ocean-dwelling cousins in Mammalia? Well, Peter Tyack, a marine biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, says it means we need to look a little more closely at the function of whale song.  We know males use song as a mating behavior, but this rapid-fire vocal switch-up indicates a complicated and intelligent social process.  “There’s something about these songs; if it were just novelty, then everyone would just do their own thing,” Tyack says. It’s possible, he thinks, that whales have “a sense of aesthetic judgment.”

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[Picture Source: Flickr (CC))


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