Variability in humpback whale songs reveals how individuals can be distinctive when sharing a complex vocal display

Luca Ubaldo Lamoni*, Ellen Clare Garland, Jenny Allen, Jennifer Coxon, Michael J Noad, Luke Edward Rendell

*Corresponding author for this work

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Individually distinctive acoustic signals in animal vocal communication are taxonomically widespread, however, the investigation of these signal types in marine mammals has focused only on a few species. Humpback whale songs are a stereotyped, hierarchically structured vocal display performed by males, and hence thought to be sexually selected. Within a population, whales conform to a common version of the song despite the song constantly evolving. While humpback songs have been studied extensively at the population level, individual level variation has been rarely described, with inconclusive results. Here we quantified inter- and intra-individual variability at different levels in the song hierarchy using songs from 25 singers across two song types from the eastern Australian population song of 2002 (12 singers), and the revolutionary song introduced in 2003 (13 singers). Inter- individual variability was found heterogeneously across all hierarchical levels of the song structure. In addition, distinct and individually specific patterns of song production were consistently recorded across song levels, with clear structural differences between the two song types. These results suggest that within the constraints of song conformity, males can produce individually distinctive patterns that could function as an advertisement to females to convey individual qualities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2238-2250
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of the Acoustical Society of America
Issue number4
Early online date12 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2023


  • Song
  • Individual variability
  • Humpback whale
  • Vocal learning
  • Cultural transmission


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