5. Something wondrous
Whether winter or summer, bowhead whales stick to the Arctic Ocean. Beneath the ice, in frigid waters and 24-hour darkness for months, the intimate details of their 200-year-long lives are practically off-limits for scientists — and largely unknown.
From 2010–2014, the University of Washington's Kate Stafford and her colleagues at the Norwegian Polar Institute collected data using underwater microphones in the North Atlantic's Fram Strait, where one of the Arctic's four populations of bowhead whales resides.
"From November to early April, the whales were screaming their heads off under the ice. It was super unexpected and super cool," Stafford says.
Unlike humpback whales that collectively sing more or less the same song over a season, the repertoire for bowheads is more vast and diverse: the researchers found the population of about 300 whales sang 184 distinct songs over the three years. Some were sung for a few hours or days but rarely ever more than a month. Over the winter breeding season, the whales sang multiple different songs. The following year, they changed it up altogether.
“Bowhead whales are completely different. And I have no idea why,” Stafford says.
What it sounds like: Each song lasts 45 seconds to 2 minutes but can be repeated to make a long bout of singing, Stafford says. Their frequency ranges from 50 Hz up to 5000 Hz. "They scream, cry, whine, purr, moan, shout."
The unknown: Without visually studying the whales as they sing, Stafford says it's unknown whether individual animals are producing different songs, whether they are sung exclusively by males and for what purpose (for instance, scientists assume that, like in humpbacks, it is related to mating), or why they change songs.
Go deeper: Read Krista Langlois' piece in Hakai on the relationship between whales and indigenous people.