Evidence for acoustic communication among bottom foraging humpback whales.

Scientific reports 4:7508 (2014) PMID 25512188 PMCID PMC4267198

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), a mysticete with a cosmopolitan distribution, demonstrate marked behavioural plasticity. Recent studies show evidence of social learning in the transmission of specific population level traits ranging from complex singing to stereotyped prey capturing behaviour. Humpback whales have been observed to employ group foraging techniques, however details on how individuals coordinate behaviour in these groups is challenging to obtain. This study investigates the role of a novel broadband patterned pulsed sound produced by humpback whales engaged in bottom-feeding behaviours, referred to here as a 'paired burst' sound. Data collected from 56 archival acoustic tag deployments were investigated to determine the functional significance of these signals. Paired burst sound production was associated exclusively with bottom feeding under low-light conditions, predominantly with evidence of associated conspecifics nearby suggesting that the sound likely serves either as a communicative signal to conspecifics, a signal to affect prey behaviour, or possibly both. This study provides additional evidence for individual variation and phenotypic plasticity of foraging behaviours in humpback whales and provides important evidence for the use of acoustic signals among foraging individuals in this species.

DOI: 10.1038/srep07508