Humpback whales tend to absorb most of the attention for their soothing songs, but it's their cousins, the bowhead whales, that are the true lyrical maestros of the ocean. The vocals of these blubbery behemoths are so complex, in fact, that researchers are now comparing them to jazz music, reports The Washington Post.
Oceanographer Kate Stafford has spent her whole career studying bowhead whales, most recently embarking on an expedition to record and analyze the animals' legendary scats. From 2010 to 2014, they dropped hydrophones into the ocean in the Fram Strait, a deepwater passage on the east coast of Iceland. The researchers soon realized that the sounds they were listening to were among the most complex ever recorded in the animal kingdom.
According to Stafford, bowhead whale songs contain “multiple frequencies and amplitude-modulated elements combined into phrases and organized in long bouts.”
She added: “When we heard, it was astonishing."
Like with humpback whales, bowhead whales appear to sing mostly for the purpose of attracting mates. But the level of complexity is only barely comparable.
“With humpback whales, all the males in the same population may sing the same song, more or less. There are changes, but everybody adopts those changes,” Stafford explained. “With bowhead whales, there don’t appear to be any rules. That’s from my human perspective. There may be rules that all the whales understand."
Or maybe bowhead whales are simply impressed with the whim and mystery of a complex, undecipherable riff. Whatever the case may be, it's time to give these baleen bards their due respect in the annals of animal communication.
Vocal crooning aside, Bowhead whales are exceptional for many reasons. For one, they're the longest living mammals in the world, living for over 200 years. They have some of the thickest blubber of any whale (which is, unfortunately, also what made them a popular target for whalers), and they're ice-breakers capable of crushing through up to a foot-and-a-half chunk of ice to take a breath.
It's tragic to think that these leviathans were nearly hunted to extinction until a 1966 moratorium was passed to protect the species. We have so much to learn from these gentle giants with a lot to say.