Popular whale songs reveal the first ever non-human cultural exchange

The haunting songs produced by whales are shockingly similar to human pop music: one single hit tune spreads across the ocean, and becomes the preferred whale mating tune. And, just like the modern music industry, it all runs on remixes.

Humpback whales are one of a number of whale species that produce these beautiful, mysterious songs, as many of you may remember from that acclaimed nature documentary Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Humpbacks make an array of different sounds, and the repetitive sound patterns created by males during their mating periods really do have a comparable structure to human music - some researchers have dubbed male humpbacks "inveterate composers" for all the music they create.

But it appears that humpbacks owe less to classical composers than they do modern hit-makers, based on new research from Australia's University of Queensland. They found that in any given humpback population, all the males will sing the same mating song. But the tune's pattern and structure will occasionally change, and as more catchy versions emerge they spread across the ocean - for some reason almost always moving west to east - and supplant the older, now stale songs.

This sharing of songs is a form of population-wide cultural exchange that we've never seen before outside humans. Researcher Ellen Garland explains:

"Our findings reveal cultural change on a vast scale. [Songs create] cultural ripples from one population to another, causing all males to change their song to a new version. The songs started in the population that migrates along the eastern coast of Australia and then moved — just the songs, and probably not the whales — all the way to French Polynesia in the east. Songs were first learnt from males in the west and then subsequently learned in a stepwise fashion repeatedly across the vast region." "

Only one song ever moved from east to west during the course of the two-year study. Garland suspects that's because the western populations are much larger, meaning they effectively have more influence on what all the whales are singing. This is because the larger population is more likely to have small small breakaway populations that move eastward, bringing the new songs with them, or the eastern whales are able to hear the larger populations' songs during migration. Whatever the reason, once a song emerges, the males rapidly start singing it and by the end of the breeding season it has become the song that all males sing.

It turns out that the whale entertainment industry is just as creatively bankrupt as its human counterpart, as most of the songs are just slight tweaks and revisions of those that have been heard before. Garland describes the songwriting process:

"It would be like splicing an old Beatles song with U2. [But] occasionally they completely throw the current song out the window and start singing a brand new song."

There's still a lot we don't know about whale songs, including precisely how they're composed, what they communicate, or even why they spread in the way that they do. All we can really say is that, much like human pop music, it's probably all about sex:

"We think this male quest for song novelty is in the hope of being that little bit different and perhaps more attractive to the opposite sex. This is then countered by the urge to sing the same tune, by the need to conform."

Via Current Biology.