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Pattern in whale songs predicts migration

Image of hydrophone deployment

Image of hydrophone deployment on the seafloor, with the hydrophone stand still in the grip of the robotic hand of a remotely operated vehicle.

© 2015 MBARI
Oct 1 2020

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Research, Faculty, Students

In a paper published Oct 1. in Current Biology, researchers from Stanford and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have identified patterns in the trills and bellows of blue whales that indicate when the animals are migrating from their feeding grounds off the North American coast to their breeding grounds off Central America.

“Sound is a vital mode of communication in the ocean environment, especially over long distances,” said William Oestreich, a graduate student in biology at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “Light, or any sort of visual cue, is often not as effective in the ocean as it is on land. So many marine organisms use sound for a variety of purposes, including communicating and targeting food through echolocation.”

This research lays the groundwork for possibly predicting blue whale migration based on the transitions between the different song schedules – such forecasts could be used to warn shipping lanes further down the coast, like air traffic control but for the ocean. The researchers also hope that further analysis of the acoustic data will reveal more about whale behavior in response to environmental changes, such as warming waters and fickle food supplies.

“If, for example, we can detect differences in migration and foraging in response to changes in the environment, that is a really powerful and important way to keep an eye on this critically endangered species,” said Jeremy Goldbogen, who is an assistant professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and also senior author of the paper. “That’s economically important, ecologically important and also culturally important.”