Interactions between singing Hawaiian humpback whales and conspecifics nearby

Peter Tyack*

*Corresponding author for this work

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224 Citations (Scopus)


Interactions of singing humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, with conspecifics nearly were studied during the breeding season off the west coast of Maui, Hawaii. On 35 occasions singing humpbacks were followed by boats (Table 1). The movement patterns of these singing whales and other conspecifics nearby were recorded by observers on land using a theodolite. Thirteen of 35 singers stopped singing and joined with nonsinging whales either simultaneously or within a few minutes after ceasing to sing. Another 15 also stopped singing while under observation and were not seen to join with another whale, but all singing whales that joined with other whales stopped singing. Singing whales often pursue nonsinging whales, while nonsinging whales usually turn away from singers (Figs. 4, 5). When a singer joined with a female and calf unaccompanied by another adult, behavior tentatively associated with courtship and mating was observed (Fig. 7). Such behavior also occurred during several interactions between singers and individuals of unknown sex. Aggressive behavior was observed during three interactions between singers and individuals of unknown sex (Fig. 4) and it predominated whenever more than one adult accompanied a cow and calf. During the other occasions when a singer joined another whale, we could not determine the nature of the interaction. Many times the singers and joiner would surface together only once and would then separate. However, on several occasions the singer and joiner would remain together for as long as we could follow them, up to 1.5 h. The roles of singer and joiner can be interchangeable. For instance, on two occasions a singer joined with a whale that either had been singing or started singing later in the day (Fig. 3). Furthermore, on several occasions, a nonsinging whale appeared to displace the singer. Individual singing humpbacks are not strictly territorial, although singers appear to avoid other singers. As the breeding season progressed, singers sang for longer periods of time (Fig. 2). In addition, the probability of a whale joining with the singer decreased by 42% from the first half of the observation period to the second half. Furthermore, this increase in duration of song bouts occurred during that section of the season when female reproductive activity as measured by rate of ovulation is reported to be decreasing in other areas. Our observations support the hypothesis that humpback song plays a reproductive role similar to that of bird song. Humpbacks sing only during the breeding season. If, as seems likely, most singing humpbacks are male, then singing humpbacks probably communicate their species, sex, location, readiness to mate with females, and readiness to engage in agonistic behavior with other whales.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)105-116
Number of pages12
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 1981


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