When an international team of researchers started recording the sounds of bowhead whales in Greenland, they ‘hoped to record a few little grunts and moans,’ according to oceanographer Kate Stafford. What they found instead were more than 60 unique songs, as they report in a study published in the journal Endangered Species Research.
‘The song diversity noted here is unprecedented for baleen whales,’ they write in the paper. ‘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.’
The finding also hints to a possible rebound of bowhead whales, a critically endangered species. It is thought that these songs may signal the breeding season and also that each song may indicate the presence of a single whale; what would mean that there are at least 60 male whales in the area of study.
‘If this is a breeding ground, it would be spectacular,’ says Kate Stafford. ‘For such a critically endangered species, it’s really important to know that there’s a reproductively active portion of the population.’
The recordings were made with two microphones that stayed underwater for five months between 2008 and 2009. Also, don’t miss the poetic title of the paper: ‘Spitsbergen’s endangered bowhead whales sing through the polar night.’
Photo: Ansgar Walk
Stafford KM, Moore SE, Berchok CL, Wiig Ø, Lydersen C, Hansen E, Kalmbach D, & Kovacs KM (2012). Spitsbergen’s endangered bowhead whales sing through the polar night Endangered Species Research DOI: 10.3354/esr00444