Species: Megatera novaeangliae
When we speak, hum, sing, etc. we make those noises by vibrating our vocal cords. Sometimes, when you hum or hold a note, you can even feel the vocal cords in your throat. Whales can also sing. In fact, male humpback whales sing to communicate and can be heard for miles by other whales, each “song” lasting up to about 30 minutes.
Fun fact: scientists don’t know how humpbacks pull off singing, because they have no vocal cord.
Humpback whales get their common name from the way they arch their back when diving. They aren’t the largest or heaviest whales in the world, but they do have the longest flippers. Their fluke and wing-like flippers can help you identify the whale as a Megatera novaeangliae, and the unique white splash-like markings on those appendages allow scientists to distinguish between individuals, like a fingerprint.
These creatures can be found in all of the world’s oceans, in both tropical and polar regions, though they don’t venture too far up into the poles.
M. novaeangliae are a type of baleen whale, meaning that they don’t have teeth like we do, and they take in large amounts of water that, hopefully, contain a lot of krill and small fish. Humpback whales are different from other baleens because they can actually trap their prey through a process that is better to watch in a video or documentary (e.g. Blue Planet).
When humpbacks find swarms of krill or schools of small fish, they will try to gather them together. They do this by exhaling air while they spiral around their prey. This action creates a “bubble-netting” that confuses and traps the prey, allowing humpbacks to dive below and lunge upward to feed upon their prey. Like I said, I highly recommend watching this on a video or a documentary because it’s incredible to see, and if you get a chance to see it in person, all the better!
I feel like humpback whales are underappreciated. I first learned about them when I started watching nature documentaries in high school, but it wasn’t until college that they started getting more fleshed out in my mind.
They’re amazing creatures that produce eerily beautiful songs. I should know; I had to listen to some in a lab class in college, and they have a unique feeding behavior for baleen whales. While they’re not endangered or threatened, their populations have been reduced to a fifth of what it once was due to whaling practices—that’s mind-blowing to me!
If what you’ve read has piqued your interest, please take the time to learn more about these creatures. There’s so much that I couldn’t add, and who knows, maybe your curiosity will lead you into a job that will allow you to understand the mysteries of their singing.
Videos of bubble netting:
Sources and more reading:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by American Museum of Natural History
Ocean: A Visual Encyclopedia made by the Smithsonian
Marine Mammals Evolutionary Biology 3rd edition by Annalisa Berta, James L. Sumich, and Kit M. Kovacs