Science News

Australian scientists decode whale sounds

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian scientists studying humpback whales sounds say they have begun to decode the whale’s mysterious communication system, identifying male pick-up lines and motherly warnings.

A humpback whale performs a "tail slap" by slapping its tail flukes on the surface of the water in Hervey Bay off the east coast of Australia in this file photo from Aug. 7, 2006. REUTERS/Russell Boyce

Wops, thwops, grumbles and squeaks are part of the extensive whale repertoire recorded by scientists from the University of Queensland working on the Humpback Whale Acoustic Research Collaboration (HARC) project.

Recording whale sounds over a three-year period, scientists discovered at least 34 different types of whale calls, with data published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

“I was expecting to find maybe 10 different social vocalizations, but in actual fact found 34. It’s just such a wide, varied repertoire,” University of Queensland researcher Rebecca Dunlop told Reuters.

The researchers studied migrating east humpback whales, as they travelled up and down Australia’s east coast, and recorded 660 sounds from 61 different groups.

Researchers attached audio transmitters to buoys near the whales and monitored the whale interaction from the shore.

Many of the whale sounds could overlap in meaning, said Dunlop, but some had clear meanings.

A purr by males appeared to signify the male was trying his luck to mate a desirable female. High frequency cries and screams were associated with disagreements, when males jostled to escort females during migration, she said.

A wop sound was common when mothers were together with their young. “The wop was probably one of the most common sounds I heard, probably signifying a mum calf contact call,” said Dunlop.

Dunlop stopped short of defining the whale communication as a language, but said there were clear similarities with human interaction.

“Its quite fascinating that they’re obviously marine mammals, they’ve been separated from terrestrial mammals for a long, long, long time, but yet still seem to be following the same basic communication system,” she said.

Dunlop hopes further research on the subject will help reveal the effect of boats and man-induced sonar on migrating whales.

Editing by Alex Richardson