Bowhead Whale Songs Surprise Researchers

Written by on August 2, 2012 in Marine Life

Emily Tripp

University of Washington researchers have found that critically endangered bowhead whales sing like birds–they know so many songs and call types that they more closely resemble bird calls than songs of other whales.

Kate Stafford, oceanographer with University of Washington’s Applied Physics Lab, and colleagues attached two hydrophones to moorings in Fram Strait and left them for nearly a year.  Fram Strait is a ice-covered section of sea, located between Greenland and the northern islands of Norway.  Bowhead whales have been hunted nearly to extinction and since 1970, only 40 sightings have been reported in that area.  For this reason, Stafford wasn’t expecting to gather too much interesting data.

“We hoped to record a few little grunts and moans,” Stafford said. “We were not expecting to get five months of straight singing.”

Bowhead whales. Photo Credit: NOAA.

Bowhead whales. Photo Credit: NOAA.

They ended up finding way more than they were expecting.  They picked up over 60 unique songs, with singing almost every hour of the day.  They still don’t know why the whales sang so consistently, but their findings do hint at the possibility of a rebound in bowhead whale population.

“If this is a breeding ground, it would be spectacular,” said Stafford. “For such a critically endangered species, it’s really important to know that there’s a reproductively active portion of the population.”

You can read the full story and listen to audio recordings here: Critically endangered whales sing like birds; new recordings hint at rebound.

The findings were published on July 31 in Endangered Species Research: Spitsbergen’s endangered bowhead whales sing through the polar night.

Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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