Will this have a bad impact on claims about sea mammal intelligence? Some fix is sure to be thought up:
The study, published Tuesday (Feb. 9) in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, analyzed songs from groups of humpbacks that were not in acoustic contact with each other, yet still produced acoustically comparable songs.
“The idea that humpback whales are a distinguished part of the animal kingdom because of their ability to culturally learn songs is apparently not true,” says Mercado. “But to me, what the whales are doing is actually more impressive.
“Cultural transmission implies that what’s heard is copied. That means it doesn’t matter what is heard or what is copied. But what we found is very specific and precise, without a trace of arbitrary vocalization. The songs change over time in a fashion that’s even more precise than what humans do when language develops.”
The talented club DJ serves as an appropriate metaphor for changing whale song.
“DJs can’t just randomly go from one song to the next,” says Mercado. “They have to think about beat matching, tempo and mood in order to maintain a continuous flow.
“I think that might be true of the whales. When they make changes, they do so in relation to what preceded it. They’re basically beat matching when they change songs—and we found similarities in populations that had no social contact or genetic links.”
Mercado says existing research claims that humpback populations isolated from one another do not change their songs in the same way. Each population is original, taking their songs in original directions.
“These things are not true,” says Mercado. “I compare songs over 40 years and compare populations that have never been in contact with one another, and they’re doing basically the same thing.” …
“These results tell me that whales are sophisticated in ways that researchers and observers hadn’t previously considered,” says Mercado. “What we’re hearing is a level of acoustic sophistication which is beyond the ability of humans.Bert Gambini, University at Buffalo, “Study: Humpback whales aren’t learning their songs from one another” at Phys.org
Sure. Whale songs are more sophisticated than Beethoven’s Fifth.
Don’t blame Eduardo Mercado. In order to deal safely, if not rationally, with the demand that whales be seen to be nearly as smart as people, he is stuck with making these nonsense claims. The probable situation is that whales don’t vary their songs much because they can’t. One might say the same of many birds.
The paper is closed access.