January's National Geographic featured an article by Douglas Chadwick on humpback whales entitled "What Are They Doing Down There?" The article is one of NG's typical "state of the union" features where they touch on a range of issues without necessarily delving too deeply into any one area. I'm not criticizing the style; it serves to do what NG does best, mixing big picture ideas with gorgeous photography in an enticing blend of wonder and soft science. If the mag slips too much towards pathos, it tries to recover by tossing in a map (like this one on humpback migration) to regain some street cred.
I want to skirt National Geographic as a topic for this post. It is what it is - some like it, others hate it and I don't mean to belittle either argument by not raising the debate here. (If anyone wants to have that debate, feel free in the comments section.) My quick hit on Geographic is that it's an important gateway drug into thinking about the world beyond one's immediate place. In the pre-Animal Planet/Discovery days there wasn't a whole of access to the kinds of stories and topics Geographic covered, and the natural world came into our house mostly through Geographic, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and PBS.
I want to focus on the issue the article raises last - the singing of humpback whales. It's an interesting way to end the article; as a whole the piece offers a blending of the known and unknown about humpbacks, covering (in order): the rise in humpback population (with the North Pacific pop now somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 whales), migration routes, the breathholder phenomenon (humpbacks who stay under for 30 minutes just sort of hanging out, conserving energy), mating behavior (in which one female is trailed by a squadron of males), social behavior, child-rearing, and finally the humpback's song.
The song remains a mystery, which makes it the perfect topic to end the article. The public perception (and until 1997 the scientific perception) that the song plays a role in mating has been discredited in the scientific community but has yet to reach out into the mainstream audience. The topic serves one well for their next dinner party because whales are both extremely well-known in the general and unknown in the particular. They're "majestic," and "peaceful" and "graceful" and they didn't eat Timothy Treadwell.
(Sure, one swallowed Jonah and another nabbed Geppetto, but both potential meals got away.)
Here's a rundown of where Jim Darling, who's been working the humpback's song mystery for 25 years and is a Whale Trust Researcher (and the main source for this section of the article) stands:
- Only males sing.
- Singing is not part of a mating ritual. When males sing they attract other males to them and not females.
- Singing does not appear to be a challenge, either. Males will "often circle each other without obvious aggression. They may even swim off together like bachelor buddies, often to join other whales."
- On song structure: "Its formal structure is built from a succession of themes, or melodies, that have a striking range of tones from piccolo chirrups to low-pitched foghorn blasts. Some scientists say they can detect rhymes."
- Humpbacks from the same region will sing the same song (with subtle variations), while whales from different regions will sing different songs.
- The songs change over time, even changing over the course of a single breeding season: "A decade ago, the humpbacks in the ['Au'au] Channel ended their song with a rising series of whoops just before coming up for breath. The next year, the finale switched to a series of ribbits. Two years ago the song had only four themes, down from as many as eight in earlier years, and even a novice could pick out a new growly tone dominating a particular section. As of 2006, there were six themes, one with a recently added flourish of four loud squeaks, and the final noises before surfacing were more like a buzz."
Geographic (not Darling, tellingly) poses the following questions: "Could it be that the whales sing to establish their identity as a group or possibly as individuals? That they are telling others about who they are and where they come from? Or sharing lore about the currents and fish and maybe the stars?"
The fact is that no one knows, so however one feels about the possibility of any of Geographic's theories all of those options are still on the table because they can't be disproven. You gotta feel for a guy like Darling who's spent a quarter-century trying to figure this out. It seems like a mystery that should be rather solvable. Not easily solvable, sure, but it does appear from an outside perspective that a simple process of elimination based on other animal behavior should at least lead experts towards a generally accepted answer. But it hasn't. That "generally accepted answer" was the mating position, which Darling helped to disprove.
The first question I ask whenever this topic comes up (and I admit I've always got a kick out of listening to audio recordings of whale songs) is whether our labels are improperly herding us to a preconfigured discourse. It's called a "song," which lends to a certain mindset of rules and thinking and language. We read the following set of words and phrases in the article: formal structure, themes, melodies, piccolo, rhymes, finale, sections, flourish.
I'm not arguing it's wrong to label what the whales are doing as singing, but given that we know so little about why they sing and what function the song performs, I don't think we should let ourselves be trapped into a discourse dominated by musical terms. Use the language but don't become trapped by it.
I have no idea why the humpbacks are singing, or how regional difference plays a role in the evolution of the songs, but what draws me to this question is that the songs do seem to be evolving - the songs evolve and yet that regional cohesion remains. Are the whales composing songs as they go, or is it simply a matter of following the lead, the way a hit song or sound on the radio is quickly replicated by other artists? Is it right to even think of each season's song as independent from other seasons, or should we be thinking of them as one long epic poem or set of chapters? Or maybe, at the end of the day, the humpbacks just like to sing to pass the time and the function is simple amusement. If there's a human equivalent to be had, is it Homer, Beethoven, Phish, people who do karaoke?
And how does their singing position play into any of this? According to Chadwick, the typical singing posture has the humpback "positioned with its head down at a depth of about 70 feet (21 meters), its pectoral fins spread wide, and its tail toward the surface." (See image back at the start of this post for a picutre of the singing posture.)
I feel okay not knowing since even the experts don't know, but I can't get away from the idea that this shouldn't be that hard to figure out. And yet it obviously is, which leads me to think maybe we're not asking the right questions. Or we've got the right questions but we're not using the right language in asking them.
Above Image Copyright National Geographic