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A Tale Of 2 Whale Songs


All right, think of your favorite jazz standard.


GREENE: OK. Maybe that's not what you had in mind. That was the song of the Spitsbergen bowhead whale. Now, it was once thought that the bowhead whale song was very similar to that of the humpback whales'.


Yeah, but according to a new study from the University of Washington, it turns out that the two are very distinct. Every winter, all humpback males sing more or less the same song. On the other hand, Spitsbergen whales sing a bunch of very different melodies. Kate Stafford is an oceanographer at UW's Applied Physics Lab and the lead author of the study.

KATE STAFFORD: My mind immediately goes to the differences between classical music, which is ordered - you have these nice phrases or movements - whereas if you think about jazz, there seems to be a lot more innovation and novelty, and there might be a lot of harmonics or screeching and scraping.

GREENE: Now, bowhead whales were hunted almost to extinction in the 1600s. There are only believed to be a couple hundred left today. Stafford and her team placed a hydrophone off the coast of Greenland in hopes of picking up any bowhead song. But when they retrieved the recordings...

STAFFORD: We heard hours and hours and months of singing. So these bowhead whales were singing from November until early April in the polar night - so 24-hour darkness - under almost 100 percent sea ice cover in the Arctic in the middle of winter. And that was an amazing surprise.

KING: It's not clear why Spitsbergen whales sing with so much variation. But one theory is that their small population size is actually driving song diversity. Stafford says this goes to show you, the Arctic is not a lifeless ice desert.

STAFFORD: Once you can eavesdrop under the ice, it really opens your mind to all of the diversity even in the Arctic. And it's a pretty special place.


GREENE: Hearing from oceanographer Kate Stafford with the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOWHEAD WHALE VOCALIZING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.