Scientists reveal the secret of the whale song: “Pioneer”

How humpback whales and other baleen whales produce their complex and often frightening songs has remained a mystery until now. Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have now revealed this. The animals appear to have developed a specialized “voice box” that allows them to sing underwater. Professor Quinn Elemans, who led the research, described the discovery as “very exciting”.

Elemans and his colleagues conducted experiments using larynxes, or “voice boxes,” carefully removed from three beached whale carcasses—a minke whale, a humpback whale, and a wolffish. They then blew air through the massive structures to produce sound.

In humans, sound is created by vibrations when air passes over structures called vocal folds in the throat. Baleen whales, on the other hand, have a large, U-shaped body with a fat pad at the top of the throat. This vocal anatomy allows animals to sing by recirculating air and preventing water inhalation.

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The researchers also revealed why the noise we make in the ocean is so annoying to ocean giants. The researchers created computer models of the sounds and showed that the baleen whale’s song is limited to a narrow frequency that overlaps with the ship’s noise. “They cannot simply choose to sing louder, for example, to avoid the noise we make in the ocean,” Professor Ellimans explains. Thus human ocean noise may prevent whales from communicating over long distances. This knowledge could be vital to the conservation of humpback whales, blue whales and other endangered giant marine creatures.

“Sound is critical to their survival because it is the only way they can find each other to mate in the ocean,” Ellimans says. “These are some of the most mysterious animals that have ever lived on this planet,” he told the BBC. “They are some of the largest animals, and they are very intelligent and social.”

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Kate Stafford, from Oregon State University, also called the research “groundbreaking.” “The production and reception of sound is the most important sense for marine mammals, so any study that sheds light on how sounds are produced could advance the field.”

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Winton Frazier

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