Vol 9, Issue 2, May 2022

The Humpback's new Songs: Diverse and Convergent Evidence Against Vocal Culture via Copying in Humpback Whales


Mercado III, E. (2022). The humpback's new songs: Diverse and convergent evidence against vocal culture via copying in humpback whales. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 9(2), 196-206. https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.


Singing humpback whales constantly modify their songs over hours, days, months, and years, throughout their adult lives. Intriguingly, humpbacks appear to vary songs in concert, with most singers in a population producing similar songs at any given time. The convergent vocal dynamics of singing humpbacks have convinced many that songs are vocal customs, passed from singer to singer through vocal imitation. This interpretation has recently been challenged, however, by the discovery that singers not in acoustic contact may sing highly similar songs, and also appear to change their songs along similar trajectories. How could singers that cannot hear each other culturally conform? Here, it is argued that the changes humpback whales make to songs are inconsistent with either communal copying or competitive improvisation. Instead, singers appear to be continuously morphing the acoustic properties of songs in predictable ways both within and across songs, even in the absence of cross-population interactions. There is no direct evidence that singing humpback whales learn songs by copying other singers. The fact that groups of singers change songs in similar ways is not evidence of vocal imitation, cultural transmission, or cultural evolution. So called “cultural revolutions” in humpback whale songs, which have been touted as the clearest and most impressive evidence of culture in any nonhuman animal, actually provide evidence against vocal culture in humpback whales. Vocal complexity and convergence can arise through mechanisms other than cultural transmission via vocal imitation, and in the case of humpback whales, genetic predispositions and ecological conditions may be more relevant to determining how singers collectively change songs over time.