How a Cushion of Fat Helps Whales Sing

Researchers may have figured out how baleen whales vocalize
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 22, 2024 2:21 PM CST
How a Pile of Fat Helps Whales Sing
This photo provided by Samuel Lam shows a humpback whale and her calf in Rurutu, French Polynesia in September 2022. Humpbacks are known to compose elaborate songs that travel across oceans and whale pods.   (Samuel Lam via AP)

Whales sing loud enough that their songs travel through the ocean, but knowing the mechanics behind that has been a mystery. Scientists now think they have an idea, and it's something not seen in other animals: a specialized voice box. Experts say the discovery, while based on a study that is too tiny to be definitive, will direct future research into how whales communicate, per the AP. In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, Coen Elemans of the University of Southern Denmark and colleagues studied the voice boxes, or larynxes, from three dead, stranded whales—a humpback, minke, and sei, which are all types of baleen whales.

In the laboratory, the scientists blew air through the voice boxes under controlled conditions to see what tissues might vibrate. Researchers also created computer models of the sei whale's vocalizations. Whales' ancestors were land-dwellers about 50 million years ago before moving into water. Elemans said the animals adapted their voice boxes over tens of millions of years to make sounds underwater. Unlike humans and other mammals, baleen whales don't have teeth or vocal chords. Instead, in their voice boxes, they have a U-shaped tissue that allows them to breathe in massive amounts of air and a large "cushion" of fat and muscle not seen in other animal species. Whales sing by pushing the tissue against the fat and muscle cushion, Elemans said.

As the whale voice boxes tested were from juveniles, not adult males, who do the singing, some experts argue more research is needed. But "this is the most comprehensive and significant study to date on how baleen whales vocalize, a long-standing mystery in the field," said Jeremy Goldbogen, an associate professor of oceans at Stanford University, who was not involved in the new research. He noted there is more to be studied "given the extraordinarily diverse acoustic repertoires" of whales. Unfortunately, the shipping industry is drowning them out, Elemans said. "It significantly reduces their ability to communicate," which is a particular concern for dispersed whale populations, whose members send calls across huge distances in order to find mates. (More whales stories.)

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