Humpback whale breeding songs are spread from one population to another in the South Pacific, with radical new songs quickly adopted in the quest to be novel and attract a partner, new Queensland research shows.


The University of Queensland (UQ) and South Pacific Whale Research Consortium researches studied the songs over 11 years in six populations in waters around eastern Australia, New Caledonia, Tonga, American Samoa, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.

UQ PhD student Ellen Garland said their research showed that songs had spread across whale populations, suggesting acoustic contact or male dispersal between populations in the region.

Ms Garland said the songs change each year, by either a small increment or a complete switch, with the large eastern Australia population starting the trend, which then moves east over two years into French Polynesia.

“When the songs are exchanged they are maintained to their almost original structure, with each population only making minor changes,” Ms Garland told AAP.

When a radical new sound is heard, it is adopted by males quickly in their quest to be novel and attract a female.

“Songs can undergo evolutionary change, which occurs over a long period of time, or revolutionary change, where the males start singing a completely new song,” Ms Garland said.

“The way whales change their song can be compared to how humans follow fashion trends, someone starts a new trend and before you know it everyone starts wearing the same thing.”

The study was published on Friday in the US journal, Current Biology.