for National Geographic News
Even among whales, it seems, the best singers get the girls.
Joshua Smith, a doctoral student at the University of Queensland in St. Lucia, Australia, has spent three migration seasons collecting the songs of humpback whales.
It's during this time that male humpbacks emit vocalizations that sound, at least to human ears, like barks, chirps, and moans.
(See a Crittercam video of humpback whales.)
"Singers are joining females with calves more often and singing for a much longer duration with them than with any other group," Smith said.
Some theories have suggested that male humpbacks, like insects and birds, could be using their songs to either warn off other males or to attract females.
But Smith now thinks it's more likely that the songs are used as a courtship display directed at females, who may also size up males based on their singing ability.
"The way they structure their songs, perhaps using elements like higher or lower frequencies and how they do that, could reflect attributes of that male, such as his fitness or his age," Smith said.
Through his research, Smith hopes to decode the relationship between the songs and the social interactions between the singing males and other whales.
Getting the Guy?
While male humpbacks sing most often in the presence of a female, there is still little evidence that females are overtly attracted to or join males that sing.
With the help of a large number of volunteers, Smith and his supervisor, Michael Noad, recorded and tracked male humpbacks that sang for up to 23 hours, as well as other males that sang for just ten minutes.
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