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Bowhead Whales - The Jazz Singers Under the Arctic Ice

bowhead whale and calf

Blues planet: a bowhead whale with calf/NOAA

Scientists have discovered that bowhead whales - believed to be the longest living mammals - serenade each other with a complex series of freeform melodies similar to jazz. The blubber-rich, slow-moving whale had been a prime target for whalers and was nearly driven to extinction.

One was recently caught with a harpoon embedded in it that dated back to the 1880s and chemical analysis on samples from their eyeballs revealed ages up to a possible 245 years. 

They live in the Arctic and communicate by singing loudly and at great length under the ice cap from late autumn to early spring. Scientists have been recording a group of 200 living off the east coast of Greenland and, according to their study published this week, the ancient crooners have a stunning repertoire of song.

bowhead shutterstock 96854104

Ancient  mariners: bowhead whales are the oldest living mammals

'It was astonishing,' said the lead author, Kate Stafford, an oceanographer at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Seattle. 'Bowhead whales were singing loudly, from November until April – non-stop, 24/7 – and they were singing many, many different songs.'

Dr Stafford and three colleagues counted 184 distinct melodies over a three-year period, which may make bowheads one of the most prolific composers in the animal kingdom. Singing is a rare trait in non-human mammals. Gibbons and mice sing simple repetitive tunes. Humpback whales have a more developed song but tend to only sign one song. However, the bowheads have a repertoire to compete with song birds.

'If a humpback whale song is like classical music, bowheads are jazz' said Dr Stafford. 'Their sound is more free-form.'

Not only do they not repeat a song during the Arctic winter, it seems they learn a whole new set of songs each season.

Now the researchers are puzzling over what is the purpose of the songs and why there is such a wide variety.

And here's a great video of bowhead whales getting their rocks off in another way…

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