Humpback whales can learn new songs while navigating a shared migratory route, St Andrews scientists have found.
Research by biologists from St Andrews University focused on the Kermadec Islands in the South Pacific, a recently-discovered migratory stopover for the whales.
The team found similarities in whale songs from the Kermadec Islands and other wintering locations, from New Caledonia to the Cook Islands.
It was already known that whale songs are transmitted eastwards across the South Pacific Ocean, travelling across breeding populations from Australia to French Polynesia in a series of “revolutions” spanning just three years.
The new research, in collaboration with the University of Aukland and published in the Royal Society’s journal Open Science, reveals migratory convergence appears to enable whales in different populations to learn each other’s songs as they travel together.
Dr Ellen Garland, from St Andrews University, said: “Male humpback whales perform complex, culturally-transmitted song displays.
“Our research has revealed the migration patterns of humpback whales appear to be written into their songs.
“We found similarities in songs from the Kermadec Islands and songs from multiple wintering locations.
“While convergence and transmission have been shown within a whale population during migration and on their wintering grounds, song exchange and convergence on a shared migratory route remained elusive.”
Dr Luke Rendell, also from St Andrews, added: “Song themes from multiple wintering grounds matched songs recorded at the Kermadecs, including a hybrid of two songs, suggesting that multiple humpback whale populations from across the South Pacific are travelling past these islands and song-learning may be occurring.
“Our results are consistent with the hypothesis of song-learning on a shared migratory route, a mechanism that could drive the eastern transmission of song across the South Pacific.”