Science | July 25, 2017 12:13 pm

Whales Learn Songs Like Humans and Can Remix Them Too

Scientists find that whales learn songs in segments similar to human languages.

Whales Learn Songs like Humans
Humpback whales photographed in waters near Tonga. (Auscape/UIG via Getty Images)

Think of whales as nature’s deejays.

Humpback whales learn songs in segments, similar to the way humans acquire language skills, a new study has found. The cetaceans can also compose new songs using learned verses, similar to a remix.

Scientists already knew that whales teach each other new songs using a kind of “social learning,” instead bestowing them genetically. New research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, shows these aren’t a new song entirely. The whales riff off each other, taking segments and rearranging to form a “hybrid song” but leaving some chunks untouched.

Sometimes entire pod will suddenly start singing a new tune, perplexing researchers. “The rate of change though shows that they are constantly learning and updating their songs rapidly,” Michael Noad from the University of Queensland said in a press release.

Single sounds, grouped into segments called phrases, are repeated to form themes and those are strung together to create a song, according to The Atlantic. The technique, known as “chunking,” is also used by children and birds when they learn to communicate. It suggests a similar process might occur in the brains of three disparate species.