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Stanford researchers find pattern in whale songs that predicts migration

Photo of William Oestreich aboard the research vessel John Martin (Moss Landing Marine Laboratories) with the blow from a blue whale in the background.
Image credit: Jeremy Goldbogen
Oct 1 2020
Fellow, Research, Stanford, Students

The blue whale is the largest animal on Earth. It’s also among the loudest.

“Sound is a vital mode of communication in the ocean environment, especially over long distances,” said William Oestreich, a graduate student in biology at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “Light, or any sort of visual cue, is often not as effective in the ocean as it is on land. So many marine organisms use sound for a variety of purposes, including communicating and targeting food through echolocation.”

Although whale songs have been studied for decades, researchers have had limited success in deciphering their meaning. Now, by recording both individual whales and their greater populations in the Northeast Pacific, researchers from Stanford and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have identified patterns in the trills and bellows of blue whales that indicate when the animals are migrating from their feeding grounds off the North American coast to their breeding grounds off Central America. Their research was published Oct. 1 in Current Biology.

Study co-authors include William Oestreich, a 2017 Stanford Graduate Fellow, and David Cade, a 2014 Stanford Graduate Fellow. 

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