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Whales Have Singing Voices that Vary Between Individuals

First Posted: May 18, 2015 09:14 AM EDT

Humans aren't the only ones that have different voices. The same theory that explains individual differences in human speech has recently been applied to other members of the animal kingdom, including dogs, whales and deer.

In this latest study, the researchers worked to understand whether individual distinctive vocal characteristics of North Atlantic right whales could be used to identify and track individuals. This would be a potentially useful tool for studying an endangered species that spends much of its life hidden under the water.

North Atlantic right whales feed on tiny zooplankton in shallow waters off the east coast of the United States and Canada. For centuries, these animals were hunted and even after achieving some protection in the 1930s, the species remained critically endangered.

In this latest study, the researchers listened to the calls of the right whales. These whales make about a half-dozen different types of cause. In this case, the scientists specifically listened to the characteristics of the "upcall," a vocalization that lasts about 1 to 2 seconds and rises in frequency from around 100 Hz to 400 Hz, at the lowest end of frequencies audible to human ears.

"What I found was that there actually wasn't much difference in the formants, but one of the variables that came out as most important in discriminating the individuals was the duration of the call," said Jessica McCordic, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The analysis classified the whales well above chance levels, so that was really exciting."

In the end, the researchers were able to identify 13 individual whales by their calls. This is particularly important when it comes to identifying how many individuals are present in a certain area and could have implications for conservation efforts.

The findings were presented at the 169th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

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