The bowhead whale is an exceptional animal for more than one reason. It can live up to 200 years. It can break the ice. But that’s not all. Recordings made by researchers at the University of Washington reveal that it is also one of the most prolific composers and performers in the animal world.
As prolific as Johann Sebastian Bach? Definitely. The bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) of the Spitsbergen population reportedly produced 184 different types of song over a period of 3 years, according to a study published on April 4, 2018 in the journal Biology Letters. “These marine mammals have a surprisingly diverse and constantly evolving vocal repertoire,” said a statement from the University of Washington.
The researchers recorded the vocalizations of these animals from 2010 to 2014 from Fram Strait to the east of Greenland. “If humpback whales sound like classical music, bowhead whales sound like jazz,” says Kate Stafford of the University of Washington, lead author of the study. “The sound is freer,” says the researcher.
Most surprisingly, the bowhead whales renew their repertoire each year. Scientists have yet to determine the reason why their repertoire varies so much and if this virtuosity is the prerogative of males, as in the humpback whale. “Why do they change so many songs?” Asks the researcher. “In terms of behavioral ecology, it’s a big mystery.” For the moment, biologists only know that these cetaceans sing in winter when the sun never rises and the ice covers 95 to 100% of the sea. “I do not know why they sing in such a remarkable way, but there must be a reason,” says Stafford.
Hunted since the 16th century, bowhead whales are divided into four populations according to their area of residence. The North Atlantic population, studied here, is in critical danger of extinction according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It consists of only 200 specimens.