Humpback whale song is one of the most elaborate acoustic displays in the animal kingdom. Only males sing and song functions in sexual selection through mate attraction and/or male social sorting, behaviours that are most commonly observed on the winter breeding grounds and while whales migrate. Dr Ellen Garland and colleagues demonstrated that humpback whale song demonstrated a rapid, repeated and regular horizontal cultural transmission across the western and central South Pacific basin, which is a unique example of nonhuman population-wide cultural transmission. Despite decades of research, the underlying function of humpback whale song are still debated.

The Sexy Singing project seeks to address the question of how sexual and cultural selective forces drive the complex song display of the humpback whale.



The role of sexual selection in signal evolution is a major topic of evolutionary research, not least in vocal displays such as song. Are some songs attractive because of who sings them, or do they have inherent qualities that make them attractive when sung by anyone? Despite decades of research on sexual selection, this is not always clear. In humpback whales, only males sing, and thousands of males can rapidly replace their song by learning a new song in as little as two months, a feat unparalleled in the animal kingdom. Song presents an interplay between cultural evolution and sexual selection; however, we have little understanding of how the most complex vocal display in the animal kingdom is governed by these selective forces. This project seeks to explore the underlying selective forces interacting and governing various aspects of humpback whales song. These fundamental concepts are central to advancing our understanding of the evolution of complex communication in human and non-human animals, as cetaceans represent a unique example on the continuum of cultural complexity.

Two PhD students will participate in this project: one will look at the relationship between song characteristic and reproductive success and the second will look at song ontogeny, evolution and vocal learning.



Dr Ellen Garland, University of St Andrews, UK (principal investigator)

Dr Emma Carroll, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Dr Luke Rendell, University of St Andrews, UK

Dr Simon Jarman, Curtin University, Australia

Ms Franca Eichenberger, University of St Andrews, UK

Ms Sara Niksic, University of St Andrews, UK

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