Animal IQ

Shhh...Baby Whales Whisper To Their Mothers

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If you're in trouble, who you gonna call? For most people, it's not the Ghostbusters—it's Mom. The same goes for newborn humpback whales. But to keep predators from eavesdropping, those babies and their mamas don't use their outside voices. Instead, they whisper.

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They Speak Whale

According to an April 2017 study, humpback whales have adopted "whispering" as a clever survival technique to avoid potential predators (such as killer whales). The researchers tracked eight calves and two mothers in a known breeding ground for Antarctic humpback whales in Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia. Whales are known to give loud calls to their pod members—they're not subtle creatures. Those calls can reverberate over a distance of several kilometers. But when the researchers recorded the noises made by the calf-mother pairs, they noticed "very weak tonal and grunting sounds" that only traveled a distance of about 100 meters. The whales were essentially whispering to each other.

So, why whisper? As lead author Simone Videsen explains in a press release, "Potential predators such as killer whales could listen to their conversations and use that as a cue to locate the calf and predate on it." The whispers also avoid attracting the attention of male humpbacks that might be looking for a mate, since they could interfere with crucial mothering time.

Let's Stay Together

So what are they saying? The whispers are thought to help mother humpbacks and their newborns stay together in murky waters. The 8,000-kilometer (5,000-mile) long migration from their tropical breeding ground back to their Antarctic home is a trial for both mama and baby, and their quiet form of communication highlights a manmade risk that many may not have considered: noise pollution. The din of ships and other marine equipment could mask these faint communiqués and increase the risk that baby whales become separated from their mothers.

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Recorded Baby Whale Whispers

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