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Scientists Decode Anatomy of Baleen Whale Songs

Scientists Decode Anatomy of Baleen Whale Songs

Scientists Decode Anatomy of Baleen Whale Songs

Scientists Decode Anatomy of Baleen Whale Songs

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  • Baleen whales use a unique laryngeal cushion for singing.
  • Like humans, they communicate through their larynx.
  • Human-made shipping noises threaten, urging conservation.
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In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists have decoded the intricate anatomy behind the mesmerizing songs of baleen whales, including the majestic humpback and the colossal blue whale, the largest creature on Earth.

The study, led by University of Southern Denmark biologist Coen Elemans and published in the journal Nature, sheds light on the unique vocalization mechanism of baleen whales, unraveling the mysteries that have surrounded their haunting underwater melodies.

Baleen whales, renowned for their soulful and far-reaching songs, utilize a specialized larynx – the voice box – to produce their distinctive sounds. The researchers identified a novel structure within the larynx, a cushion made of fat and muscle, which enables these marine giants to vocalize beneath the waves. Unlike toothed whales, such as dolphins and killer whales, which employ a distinct nasal organ for vocalization, baleen whales use their larynx, drawing parallels to the vocalization process in humans.

“These are among the most spectacular animals that have ever roamed our planet. They are highly intelligent, social animals that would have dwarfed most dinosaurs and feed on the smallest shrimp,” expressed Coen Elemans, emphasizing the significance of understanding the communication methods of these awe-inspiring creatures.

The evolutionary adaptation in the form of the laryngeal cushion allows baleen whales to create a diverse range of sounds, crucial for communication in the vast and often dark oceanic environments. For instance, humpback females and their calves communicate through vocalizations, while male humpbacks sing to attract potential mates.

Intriguingly, the study revealed that baleen whales, including species like fin, sei, right, gray, minke, and bowhead whales, emit very-low frequency calls, barely audible to humans. However, some, like the humpback and bowhead whales, produce higher-pitched sounds resembling the iconic whale songs recognized by people worldwide.

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Laboratory experiments using larynx samples from stranded sei, common minke, and humpback whales, along with a sophisticated three-dimensional computer model, were instrumental in deciphering the mechanics of baleen whale vocalization. The researchers found that when baleen whales exhale, the laryngeal cushion vibrates in an undulating motion, generating the characteristic sounds.

Notably, the study also highlighted a concerning aspect of human impact on these marine giants. The whales’ vocalizations occur within the same frequency range and ocean depths as human-made shipping noises, potentially interfering with their ability to communicate effectively.

“Regrettably,” lamented Elemans, “the baleen whales are physiologically constrained, and cannot easily sing higher or deeper to avoid human noise.” The findings underscore the delicate balance between understanding and conserving these remarkable creatures and the need to mitigate human activities that threaten their natural behaviors.

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