Why And How Do Whales Communicate By Singing?

This site will explore the biological reasons for whales' unique mode of communication using the format provided by seminal Ethologist Nikolass Tinbergen's four questions for the study of animal behavior.

Phylogeny: The first question asked of any behavior under study is that of phylogeny, its basis in evolution. What more primitive traits or behaviors led to its development? Is it present in the species' relatives, or even in untrelated species? The question of phylogeny asks where a behavior came from in the context of Darwinian natural selection.

Ontogeny: Next, Tinbergen's question of ontogeny explores the development of a behavior within the lifetime of one individual. Is it learned, or inborn? Does it improve with pactice? Ontogeny is the study of development.

Mechanism: Third, behavioral biologists study the physical mechanism of a behavior. What structures enable it to be expressed, and at what cost? Are the costs always outweighed by the benefits? If Phylogny addresses where a behavior came from, the question of mechanism asks how it is possible.

Adaptive Value: Finally, and maybe most importantly, the dedicated biologist must study the adaptive value of the behavior in question. What benefits does it confer on an animal that might give it a leg up in the quest to survive and produce offspring, spreading its genes through the popultion by Darwin's mechanism of natural selection? Why is this behavior more useful than some altenative? Does it have multiple uses or emergent properties? The foundation of natural selection is that the most useful traits are most likely fixed, so why is the behavior of interest still around today?

On this site, we subject whalesong to these four questions with the ultimate aim of discovering its worth to the animal. If we explore all four paramaters, then we can get the most complete picture of why and how exactly whales communicate in such a novel and interesting way. The four questions are addressed in the corresponding tabs on the left of this page. Also included is a link to our bibliography, in which we enumerate the primary research papers and other websites we consulted for information, and link to some whalesong posted on YouTube, below.