A bowhead whale surfaces in Fram Strait, to the northwest of Norway.
Kit Kovacs/Norwegian Polar Institute
A bowhead whale surfaces in Fram Strait, northwest of Norway.

A University of Washington study has published the largest set of recordings for bowhead whales to discover that these marine mammals have a surprisingly diverse, constantly shifting vocal repertoire.

The study, published April 4 in Biology Letters, a journal of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, analyzed audio recordings gathered year-round east of Greenland. This population of bowhead whales was hunted almost to extinction in the 1600s and was recently estimated at about 200 animals. Audio recordings gathered from 2010 to 2014 indicate a healthy population and include 184 different songs.

“If humpback whale song is like classical music, bowheads are jazz,” said lead author Kate Stafford, of UW’s School of Oceanography and Applied Physics Laboratory. “The sound is more freeform. 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.”

Read more at UW Today »