Humanity's din could be blocking whales' courtship songs

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The very-low-frequency courtship songs of fin whales and blue whales are the most powerful and ubiquitous biological sounds in the oceans. But the artificial racket created by ships and other human sources could be interfering with whale reproduction and population recovery, marine scientists report in the latest edition (June 20, 2002) of the journal Nature.

Scientists from the University of California-Santa Cruz, Cornell University, Mexico's Universidad Autnoma de Baja California Sur and the California Academy of Sciences studied fin whale courtship songs in frequencies far below the range of human hearing. Natural sounds that low often can travel many hundreds, if not thousands, of miles under water. But so can very-low-frequency, human-made noises that have increased dramatically in the last 100 years of motorized shipping.

"We hypothesize that whale songs evolved to take advantage of the ocean's sound channel, especially for some of their most important kinds of communication, including finding a mate," says Christopher W. Clark, the I.P. Johnson Director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a co-author of the Nature report, "Only male fin whales sing loud songs."

"Twenty to 25 million years of evolution are being undone in a hundred years," Clark says. "There are 100-year-old whales alive today who can probably remember when the ocean was a much quieter place, and they could communicate with colleagues across grand expanses of ocean."

The discovery about whales' courtship songs occurred in a relatively quiet part of the seas -- Loreto Bay in Mexico's Gulf of California -- where fin whales aggregate to feast on swarms of krill. Surprisingly to the scientists, some whales spend a lot of time singing during the krill feast. Special computer software, developed at the Cornell bioacoustics lab and installed onboard a converted fishing boat that was towing an array of hydrophon

Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service

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