Cultural revolution in whale songs

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Humpbacks have picked up a catchy tune sung by immigrants from a distant ocean.

Abstract

The song patterns of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) depend on where they live, with populations inhabiting different ocean basins normally singing quite distinct songs. Here we record a unique and radical song change in the song of humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean off the Australian east coast. Their song was replaced rapidly and completely by the song of the Australian west coast population from the Indian Ocean, apparently as a result of the introduction of only a small number of 'foreign' singers. Such a revolutionary change is unprecedented in animal cultural vocal traditions and suggests that novelty may stimulate change in humpback whale songs.

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Figure 1: Relative prevalence of different song types in male humpback whales migrating along the east coast of Australia in 1995–98.

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Correspondence to Michael J. Noad.

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