Whales learn songs the same way humans do

"Learning new songs is a form of what's known as 'social learning,' which is where individual animals learn behaviors from each other," researcher Michael Noad said.
By Brooks Hays  |  July 25, 2017 at 11:26 AM
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July 25 (UPI) -- Whales learn songs segment by segment, just as humans learn songs verse by verse.

When researchers in Australia analyzed the singing patterns among humpback whale populations, they found evidence that young whales acquire communication skills in the same way birds learn to sing and humans learn to talk.

"All the males in a population sing the same complex song, but the pattern of song changes with time, sometimes quite rapidly, across the population," Michael Noad, an associate professor of veterinary science at the University of Queensland, said in a news release. "Learning new songs is a form of what's known as 'social learning,' which is where individual animals learn behaviors from each other rather than having them passed on from one generation to another genetically."

To understand how whales learn songs, scientists focused on songs in the midst of transformation. The latest analysis showed whales combine song segments to form new songs.

"We recorded many individual singers from several populations, including the eastern Australian population and other populations in the South Pacific," Noad said. "We looked for songs that were caught in the act of changing; songs that had some of the old song as well as some of the new song."

The discovery of hybrid songs suggests whales learn in segments. The study -- published this week in the journal PNAS -- also showed whales were most likely to interchange song segments in places where the structure or theme underlying the old and new songs were most similar.

"These themes may have been used as a way of bridging the old and new songs and therefore help with social learning," Noad said. "This provides some evidence for how animals rapidly learn large, complex displays and may have relevance for understanding how human language, the most outstanding example of social learning, evolved."

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