Non-song acoustic communication in migrating humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)



Humpback whales are renowned for the complex structured songs produced by males. A second, relatively understudied area of humpback acoustic communication concerns un-patterned sounds known as “social sounds,” produced by both males and females. These include vocalizations as well as sounds produced at the surface of the water as a result of surface behaviors (e.g., breaching, pectoral slapping). This study describes a portion of the non-song social sound repertoire of southward migrating humpbacks in Australian waters, and explores the social relevance of these sounds. On migration, humpback whales travel in social groups of varying compositions. These social groups are not stable in that humpback whales continually change group composition by splitting from, or joining with, other groups. The results of this study suggest that “breaching” and “slapping” have a communicative function. Other sounds such as “underwater blows” and “cries” were heard mainly in competitive groups while other low-frequency sounds such as “grumbles,”“snorts,”“thwops,” and “wops” may function in intra- or inter-group communication. Particular sounds (“grunts,”“groans,” and “barks”) were almost exclusive to joining pods suggesting a role in social integration. Social sounds in humpbacks may have specific social and behavioral functions relating to social group composition, and the mediation of interactions between these social groups.