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Queensland study probes how whales communicate
By Wendy Heller, November 8, 2007 @ 02:00 AM (EST)
Source: News.com.au
THEY may sound like wops, thwops, grunts, moans and squeaks to the human ear, but they could actually be complex conversations between remarkable ocean mammals.Thousands of hours of humpback whale sounds have been recorded off the coast of Queensland and analysed to reveal a secret and ancient language of the deep sea. Over three years, researchers identified at least 34 recurring sounds - some lasting less than one second and others stretching for more than 10 - that can be linked to specific, different social settings. "I've found that they have this massive repertoire," University of Queensland researcher Dr Rebecca Dunlop said. "I think their communication system is a lot more complicated than we gave them credit for," she said. From high-pitched squeaks, shrieks and cries to purrs, groans and low yaps, Dr Dunlop mapped the repeated sounds for a paper published this month in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Some noises represent aggression and competition, others affection and concern. While only humpback males are known to perform the famous whale "song", the social sounds are made by all humpbacks - males, females and calves. The "wop", for example, is common in mother and calf pods. "It's one of the most common that you'll hear," she said. "It's probably a mum-calf contact call." Other, higher-frequency signals are used when males are competing for the affections of a female. "These high-frequency cries and screams (are also heard) when they're having a bit of a row," she said. Dr Dunlop describes the male "purring" sound as a "C'mon baby" call to females, used as a mating signal.

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