Song hybridization events during revolutionary song change provide insights into cultural transmission in humpback whales

Ellen C. Garland, Luke Rendell, Luca Lamoni, M. Michael Poole, Michael J. Noad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)
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Cultural processes occur in a wide variety of animal taxa, from insects to cetaceans. The songs of humpback whales are one of the most striking examples of the transmission of a cultural trait and social learning in any nonhuman animal. To understand how songs are learned, we investigate rare cases of song hybridization, where parts of an existing song are spliced with a new one, likely before an individual totally adopts the new song. Song unit sequences were extracted from over 9,300 phrases recorded during two song revolutions across the South Pacific Ocean, allowing fine-scale analysis of composition and sequencing. In hybrid songs the current and new songs were spliced together in two specific ways: (i) singers placed a single hybrid phrase, in which content from both songs were combined, between the two song types when transitioning from one to the other, and/or (ii) singers spliced complete themes from the revolutionary song into the current song. Sequence analysis indicated that both processes were governed by structural similarity rules. Hybrid phrases or theme substitutions occurred at points in the songs where both songs contained “similar sounds arranged in a similar pattern.” Songs appear to be learned as segments (themes/phrase types), akin to birdsong and human language acquisition, and these can be combined in predictable ways if the underlying structural pattern is similar. These snapshots of song change provide insights into the mechanisms underlying song learning in humpback whales, and comparative perspectives on the evolution of human language and culture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7822-7829
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number30
Early online date24 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jul 2017


  • Vocal learning
  • Cultural transmission
  • Song
  • Cetacean
  • Humpback whale


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