Scientists dig the jazz that bowhead whales sing

Bowhead whale
A bowhead whale surfaces in Fram Strait. (Norwegian Polar Institute Photo / Kit Kovacs)

A research team led by an University of Washington oceanographer has published the largest known set of songs from bowhead whales, the jazz singers of the cetacean tribe.

An analysis of 184 different songs, recorded between 2010 and 2014, finds that bowhead whales swimming in the Arctic Ocean east of Greenland have a surprisingly diverse repertoire of vocalizations.

“If humpback whale song is like classical music, bowheads are jazz,” study lead author Kate Stafford of UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory said in a news release. “The sound is more free form. And when we looked through four winters of acoustic data, not only were there never any song types repeated between years, but each season had a new set of songs.”

Stafford and her colleagues published their findings in today’s issue of Biology Letters.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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