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12     Songlines

Humpbacks produce the longest and most varied songs in the animal world. A song is a series of different themes given in a predictable order. The humpback whales produce a new song each year containing elements of the previous year. Over time the original song is changed to a completely new song. Individual whales sing their own version of the common theme.

'New variations in the song must be transmitted by learning. The progressive changes in whale song can thus be seen as a form of cultural evolution, in the sense that the song is a learned sense which evolves. Most changes do not occur between seasons. Instead, they occur during the time when the whales were singing, developing their songs methodically in measurable steps. Furthermore, the types of change varied from seasons to season, and so could not be attributed to repeating seasonal factors.

We know of no other animal where whole populations introduce such complex, rapid and non reversing changes into their vocal displays, abandoning old forms and replacing them with new. It is not clear what selective advantage would be obtained by changing songs continuously.'

(Katherine Payne, Peter Tyack and Roger Payne. 1983 )

ABOVE: First sighted off Cape Byron in 1991 by Paul Hodda of the Australian Whale Conservation Society, the white Humpback was called H2 - we named it 'Lotus'. We spent time with'Lotus' in Hervey Bay in 1992, 93 and again in 1998. When Trish took this photograph in 98 'Lotus' was singing and we recorded its song for nearly an hour.

ABOVE: The first whale we sighted during the 1996 season was an adult singer. Its distinctive under-fluke will enable us to identify it on our next encounter. Often a singer will be heard on its own, the other whales remaining quiet as if listening. This was the case with 'Pavrotti', a singer we recorded in 1992 and who features on the whalesong audio tape
'Sounds of Oceania'.

(Photos: Trish Franklin)

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