Bowhead whale singing behaviour

Singing behaviour of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) – diel patterns and mimicking abilities

MSc. Thesis Project by: Laia Agustí Olivas (Københavns Universitet) in collaboration with the Greenlandic Institute of Natural Resources.


In my thesis I plan to investigate two different aspects of singing behaviour of bowhead whales.

In the first approach I am looking at diel patterns in the singing activity by analysing acoustic recordings of bowhead whales from winter and spring of 2011-2012 in Disko Bay. The analysis will focus on the duration of the song in relation to the time of day (WGT Hours) as the main parameter to detect diel patterns in the singing behaviour and singing activity.

In the second approach I plan to conduct playback experiments with bowhead whale-like songs to investigate whether the bowhead whales will mimic foreign acoustic signals. Song learning is an advanced case of vocal learning, and vocal learning can be viewed as a special kind of imitation. Based on currently available data, there appears to be only one group of mammals other than humans that can vocally imitate: marine mammals. In particular, bottlenose dolphins spontaneously imitate sounds in their environment (Reiss and McCowan 1993) and can be trained to imitate sounds on command (Richards et al. 1984).

My field work in Greenland (Disko Bay) focuses on conducting the playback experiments and re-establishing a passive acoustic monitoring station located at the cliffs of Qaqqaliaq that has been used in prior years to collect acoustic data from the Davis Strait-Baffin Bay population of bowhead whales. Once the monitoring station is running again the acoustic behaviour of the whales will be monitored until late May. I will use this acoustic data to detect whether the whales have incorporated / reproduced the foreign acoustic signals used in the playback experiments.

Playback experiments like such proposed in this project have not yet been performed with bowhead whales. The results will give insight into bowhead whale vocal learning and contribute with important knowledge for future studies on cetacean vocal learning and communication.