Bowheads: 100-Ton Duke Ellingtons

The haunting songs of the humpback whale are well known. (They are literally unearthly— phonograph recordings of their communications are currently passing through the outer reaches of the solar system and into interstellar space aboard the Voyager spacecrafts, launched in 1977.) All male humpback whales in the same area famously sing the same melody and, as songs evolve, the whales adopt the changes.

Scientists at the University of Washington are now reporting—after years of recording along bowhead whales’ polar migratory routes—that this whale is also an impressive sea songster. The twist is that bowheads seem to follow fewer rules than humpbacks. Scientists compare the bowhead’s free-form songs to riffing jazz musicians. Over three years, an underwater microphone captured 184 distinct bowhead whale songs from a small population. The researchers surmise that each male has a different song and that it changes from season to season.

The study is described in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters. Want to hear the bowhead song? Visit