Listen to Newly Discovered Bowhead Whale Songs

Bowhead songs have been elusive, but researchers managed to record 12 unique songs using hydrophones

Bowhead and Baby
An illustration depicts a bowhead whale and its calf. Corey Ford/Stocktrek Images/Corbis

For years, the haunting songs of humpbacks and blue whales have hogged the spotlight, in part because of the relative ease of observing and recording them. Bowhead whales, who spend much of their very long lives under thick layers of ice, proved more illusive.

But technologically advanced underwater microphones, called hydrophones, allowed researchers to capture quality sound, even beneath ice and deep waters.  Now, a new study based on the recordings has identified 12 distinct examples of bowhead songs, and BBC Nature is sharing the melodies.

The recordings were captured over one population’s spring migration along the Alaskan coast and include songs sung between 32 individual whales. These songs are generally thought to be a form of socializing, although part of the study's aim was to better understand the exact function and purposes of the sounds.

Scientists also want to know why the bowhead’s repertoire is so different from that of other whales. No other whale is known to sing so many songs with such varying melodies—and no others are known to share songs like bowheads do. Whereas humpbacks all sing the same song in any given year, bowheads’ distinct sounds are known to pass between whales and change throughout months and years.

One theory for the musical variety is that it results from the rapidly growing population of bowheads, whose numbers once dipped to near extinction due to rampant hunting. More bowhead whales in the ocean means there are more songs to sing.

“It's fascinating that the bowhead whale should be so different from other species of whale," Kate Stafford, a co-author of the study, told BBC News. She indicates that further information about the variety and evolution of their songs could lead to a better understanding of the animal’s lives and future underwater.

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