Bowhead whales are now thought to have song repertoires rivaling those of birds, except the tunes sound more like psychedelic Jimi Hendrix guitar licks than avian tweets.

Listen and see what you think:

Bowhead Whale Song #1

Bowhead Whale Song #2

Note how the whales appear to sing with “two voices." They simultaneously produce high and low frequency sounds. Like Phish and other jam bands, the whales also sometimes repeat the same tune for hours at a time.

But Kate Stafford, an oceanographer with the University of Washington's Applied Physics Lab, discovered even more. The adventure began when she and her colleagues decided to count the number of bowhead whales traveling through Fram Strait, an inhospitable icy sea region between Greenland and the northern islands of Norway.

To do that, the researchers placed two underwater microphones in the strait, and left them there for nearly a year. Since only a handful of bowhead whales have been seen in the region over the past recent decades, the scientists didn't expect to hear much.

They were wrong.

The microphones revealed that bowhead whales traveling through the area sang nearly constantly — day and night — for around 5 months in the winter. More than 60 unique songs were recorded. You can read about them in a feature article in Endangered Species Research.


“We hoped to record a few little grunts and moans,” Stafford was quoted as saying in the press release. “We were not expecting to get five months of straight singing.”

The researchers aren't clear on what this means, in terms of that area's bowhead whale population. In most other kinds of whales, she explained, individuals either sing the same song their whole lives or all members of a population sing the season’s same popular tune.

If bowheads are like the former, that would mean more than 60 males were in the Fram Strait. If the population is evenly split between males and females, there could have been more than 100 whales, far more than anyone thought was in this population.

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I hope the whale population there is rebounding!

“If this is a breeding ground, it would be spectacular,” said Stafford. “For such a critically endangered species, it’s really important to know that there’s a reproductively active portion of the population.”

(Images: Kate Stafford; The second photo shows a bowhead whale coming up for air)