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July 19, 2012

Slate's Explainer: Do whales really enjoy mariachi music?

CLINTON — Scientists have discovered that whales can reduce the sensitivity of their hearing to prevent damage from loud man-made noises, such as weapons testing, ship engines and air guns used in oil exploration. Do whales at least like the music humans make?

Probably not, but they seem to like doing their own cover versions. Whales vastly prefer their own style of music, which among humpback whales, for example, might be described as a series of squeals, gurgles and moans. Researcher Jim Darling has conducted several experiments in which he has recorded the songs of whales and then played them back using underwater speakers. He has found that whales sometimes approach when they hear recordings of songs that are similar to their own, but that whale songs that have been manipulated to sound quite different tend to send the whales away or elicit no response at all.

This doesn't stop some music-lovers from trying to jam with whales. Since the 1970s composer and activist Jim Nollman has made several recordings with whales and dolphins, first using floating drums, and then with electric guitar and mandolin. (You can hear a recording of Nollman playing guitar with a group of Pacific white-sided dolphins on YouTube.)

In another encounter between whale and human musicians, a video that went viral last year showed a mariachi band playing for a beluga whale, and many commenters and members of the media observed that the beluga appeared to be dancing.

However, the trainer explained that the beluga was trained to nod along with arm movements, like the motion the mariachis made while performing, and other whale experts agree that it's unlikely that the beluga was dancing. Sound also doesn't travel well from air to water, and so the beluga probably couldn't hear the music very clearly. However, when it presses its forehead, or "melon," to the glass, it may be attempting to communicate, as the melon is involved in producing sound.

 Although most marine biologists wouldn't view Nollman's work as scientific so much as, perhaps, artistic, whales and dolphins have been observed mimicking man-made sounds. One study found that false killer whales, who are members of the dolphin family, mimic a type of sonar. In another instance, an orca was videotaped approaching a motorboat and apparently tried to imitate it. They're also known to mimic whales of other clans, though marine biologists aren't exactly sure why.

Whales seem to find many sounds humans make to be very unpleasant, even aside from those that damage their hearing and hamper their ability to echolocate, which is one of the key ways they navigate and search for things underwater. Beaked whales seem to be frightened by sonar, and marine biologists think they are sometimes driven to beach themselves by the sound. Other whales that tend to swim in shallower waters have been spotted surfacing in order to escape the sound - but beaked whales are deep divers, and so it may be harder for them to escape.

It's important to note that whales and dolphins are protected from any intentional disturbances of man-made noise by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If you want to jam with killer whales, you'll need a permit.

Got a question about today's news? Ask-the-explainer@yahoo.com. Explainer thanks John Hildebrand of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Mark McDonald of Whale Acoustics.

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