+
upworthy
Science

Scientists have finally figured out how whales are able to 'sing' underwater

The physical mechanism they use has been a mystery until now.

humpback whale swimming underwater

Baleen whales include blue, humpback, gray, fin, sei, minke whales and more.

We've long known that baleen whales sing underwater and that males sing in tropical waters to attract females for mating. What we haven't known is how they're able to do it.

When humans make sound underwater, we expel air over through our vocal chords and the air we release rises to the surface as bubbles. But baleen whales don't have vocal chords, and they don't create bubbles when they vocalize. Toothed whales, such as sperm whales, beaked whales, dolphins and porpoises, have an organ in their nasal passages that allows them to vocalize, but baleen whales such as humpback, gray and blue whales don't.

Whales are notoriously difficult to study because of their size and the environment they require, which is why the mechanism behind whale song has remained a mystery for so long. It's not like scientists can just pluck a whale out of the ocean and stick it in an x-ray machine while it's singing to see what's happening inside its body to create the sound. Scientists had theories, but no one really knew how baleen whales sing.

Now, thanks to researchers at the University of Denmark, that mystery has been solved.


To figure it out, a research team blew air through larynxes that had been removed from three juvenile whales that had died after being stranded—one humpback, one minke and one sei whale. They discovered that the design of these "voice boxes" and the mechanism they use to create sound is unique among mammals.

The study, published in the journal Nature, describes a u-shaped structure with a cushion of fat and muscle that allows air to be recycled and prevents water from being inhaled. When air is pushed through it, part of the fatty cushion vibrates and creates the low frequency sound we call whale song.

"We've never seen this in any other animal," lead author Coen Elemans told AFP. "This is a completely novel adaptation, and we think this allowed these large whales to make sound in the water while basically holding their breath."

The low frequency of their singing also sheds light on how human shipping activity can impact these whales' ability to communicate. Whale singing tops out at a frequency of 300 hertz, and whales have to be near the ocean's surface to sing. Since boat sounds range from 30 to 300 hertz and are at the surface of the water, our activity can interfere with whales' communication and reproductive behaviors in ways whales aren't able to adapt to.

"They cannot simply choose to, for example, sing higher to avoid the noise we make in the ocean," Elemans explained to BBC News, adding additional context for why it matters. "[These are some] of the most enigmatic animals that ever lived on the planet. They are amongst the biggest animals, they're smart and they're highly social."

Whale populations have seen a positive turnaround since most countries put an end to commercial whaling, but now the threat is less direct. Since whales live in a mostly acoustic world under the waves, the noise created by boats and shipping vessels can affect their behavior. Since whales can't "outsing" our boat noises, we need to alter our own behavior prevent negatively impacting theirs.

In February 2024, the U.S. Coast Guard launched a "cetacean desk" that alerts regional ferries and commercial vessels in Washington State's Salish Sea to whale sightings in an attempt to prevent collisions and reduce noise when whales are known to be present. The alert system utilizes apps where mariners and civilians can report whale sightings, which are then passed on to captains.

Whale vocalizations are incredibly diverse and wide-ranging, and there's a lot we still don't know about how they communicate. We know that they vocalize to find one another in the murky depths and that males sing to attract females, but more research is needed to learn about the intricacies of their vocal repertoire.

But at least now scientists have a better picture of the "how," which is one step closer to better understanding these massive, magnificent creatures.

Tony Trapani discovers a letter his wife hid from him since 1959.

Tony Trapani and his wife were married for 50 years despite the heartache of being unable to have children. "She wanted children,” Trapani told Fox 17. "She couldn't have any. She tried and tried." Even though they endured the pain of infertility, Tony's love for his wife never wavered and he cherished every moment they spent together.

After his wife passed away when Tony was 81 years old, he undertook the heartbreaking task of sorting out all of her belongings. That’s when he stumbled upon a carefully concealed letter in a filing cabinet hidden for over half a century.

The letter was addressed to Tony and dated March 1959, but this was the first time he had seen it. His wife must have opened it, read it and hid it from him. The letter came from Shirley Childress, a woman Tony had once been close with before his marriage. She reached out, reminiscing about their past and revealing a secret that would change Tony's world forever.

Keep ReadingShow less
Photo by Bambi Corro on Unsplash

Can flying to college twice a week really be cheaper than renting?

Some students choose to live at home while they go to college to save money on living expenses, but that's generally only an option for families who live in college towns or cities with large universities where a student can easily commute.

For University of British Columbia student Tim Chen, that "easy commute" is more than 400 miles each way.

Twice a week, Chen hops on a flight from his home city of Calgary, flies a little more than an hour to Vancouver to attend his classes, then flies back home the same night. And though it's hard to believe, this routine actually saves him approximately $1,000 a month.

Keep ReadingShow less
Family

Dad takes 7-week paternity leave after his second child is born and is stunned by the results

"These past seven weeks really opened up my eyes on how the household has actually ran, and 110% of that is because of my wife."

@ustheremingtons/TikTok

There's a lot to be gleaned from this.

Participating in paternity leave offers fathers so much more than an opportunity to bond with their new kids. It also allows them to help around the house and take on domestic responsibilities that many new mothers have to face alone…while also tending to a newborn.

All in all, it enables couples to handle the daunting new chapter as a team, making it less stressful on both parties. Or at least equally stressful on both parties. Democracy!

TikTok creator and dad Caleb Remington, from the popular account @ustheremingtons, confesses that for baby number one, he wasn’t able to take a “single day of paternity leave.”

This time around, for baby number two, Remington had the privilege of taking seven weeks off (to be clear—his employer offered four weeks, and he used an additional three weeks of PTO).

The time off changed Remington’s entire outlook on parenting, and his insights are something all parents could probably use.

Keep ReadingShow less
Internet

Man goes out of his way to leave tip for a server after realizing he grabbed the wrong receipt

Instead of just brushing it off and moving on, the man wrote out a note explaining what happened with a sincere apology along with a $20 cash tip and delivered it to the restaurant.

Man goes out of his way to leave forgotten tip for server

Being in the service industry can be hard. People have to spend long hours on their feet, deal with repetitive movements that can create pain and sometimes interact with not so nice customers. When you rely on tips for survival on top of everything else, it can feel like a bit of a gut punch when someone decides not to leave you one despite how good your service was.

One customer must've realized the disappointment that can occur after not receiving a tip when serving tables because he went out of his way to give one. In a post shared on Reddit, a customer revealed in a letter that he realized he took the wrong receipt after leaving. Instead of taking the blank one, he took the merchant's copy which holds the tip amount and his signature.

The error was discovered when he was checking his bank account and saw the amount taken off of his card was not the amount he expected. That's when he decided to check the receipt from that day and saw the error.

Keep ReadingShow less

You can learn a lot by alayzing faces.

There are countless situations in life where we have to figure out how someone really feels, but they have a good poker face that keeps their feelings well-hidden. According to body language expert Terry Vaughan even the most deceptive people in the world have a tell: the left and right sides of their face don’t usually match.

So, which side do we believe? Vaughan says the left.

“The reason this is a powerful hack is because the left side of the face is more likely to reveal the ‘true emotion’ or the ‘dominant’ emotion if there’s a mix,” Vaughan says. The reason? “The right hemisphere of our brain does more heavy lifting in dealing with processing emotions. The left hemisphere…is a little more analytical or ‘strategic.’”

Keep ReadingShow less