How Many Songs Can a Bowhead Whale Sing?

A bowhead from the western Arctic population. Photo: Kate Stafford

When University of Washington researchers looking for signs of bowhead whales stuck two recording devices below the frigid waters of the Fram Strait—between Greenland and northern Norway—they didn’t expect to hear much of anything. They were in for quite the shock.

“We hoped to record a few little grunts and moans,” says Kate Stafford, a UW oceanographer and lead author of the recently published Endangered Species Research paper on the subject. “We were not expecting to get five months of straight singing.”

Not only that, but the toothless crooners also sang up to 60 different songs—a closer match to some songbirds than other baleen whales. The instruments took recordings nine minutes every half hour, day and night, from November 2008 through April 2009. (Click here for a sample of the songs.)

The magnitude of singing suggests that up to 100 bowheads passed through the Strait during the study period—many more than expected and potentially good news for this particular sub-group. “Given the diversity, loudness, and period over which songs were recorded, western Fram Strait appears to be a wintering ground—and potentially a mating area—for this critically endangered population of bowhead whales,” the authors wrote in the paper. “Further, there may be more animals in this population than previously believed, which is encouraging for the long-term survival of the population.”

By the 1920s, commercial fishing depleted worldwide bowhead numbers to about 3,000. Today, they hover between 7,000 and 10,000, with some of the four sub-populations faring better than others. Knowing where the individuals of this species spend their time—particularly during winter—could be key to future conservation efforts, Stafford says. “As Arctic sea ice declines, there may be some places like this that are important to protect.”

Stafford hopes to conduct additional studies on these mammals to determine, for example, how many individuals make up the Fram Strait population and why they express such a diverse song repertoire.

Bowhead breakdown:
- Adults can weigh up to 200,000 pounds and grow to 40 feet long
- These mammals use their skulls, which can be more than 16 feet long and about 30% of their body length, to break through some seriously thick ice
- Females give birth once every three or four years, after a 14-month gestation period
- Bowheads can live to at least 100 years old (some sources say they can live double that)

For more bowhead stats, visit NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources page.

Related posts: 
Warming Whale-Ways, October 2011
Arctic Drilling Noise and Shipping Traffic May Cause Problems for Whales, July 2012

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”