Humpback Whale Calls Sound Exactly the Same 36 Years Later

"I felt that, as a biologist, I was a part of something bigger than myself."

Scientists led by Cornell University postdoctoral fellow Michelle Fournet, Ph.D., reported this month that some humpback whale calls have not changed at all, regardless of time or whale.

In a study released last week in the journal Scientific Reports, they reveal a phenomenon that’s been going on for at least 36 years.

Comparing recordings by American biologist Roger Payne, Ph.D., from the 1970s to recordings taken in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, they discovered that, of the 16 humpback whale call types recorded in Southeast Alaska, 12 calls persisted from 1976 to 2012. Overall, eight call types were present in all four decades of recordings. It’s a remarkable conclusion, considering that whale songs — which are much more understood by scientists — constantly morph. Calls, meanwhile, appear to be perennial.

Fournet, who contributed to the paper while she was a research assistant at Oregon State University, tells Inverse that “it has taken multiple generations of scientists to describe what multiple generations of whales have been talking about.”

“When I first listened to his recordings and heard the same call types that I myself had heard floating in a small boat in Southeast, Alaska 36 years later, I felt exhilarated,” says Fournet of Payne’s recordings. “I felt that, as a biologist, I was a part of something bigger than myself both ecologically and culturally.”

In the video above, Inverse senior staff writer Sarah Sloat explains why this research is so remarkable to senior science editor Yasmin Tayag.

Read more: New Whale Recordings Reveal Purpose of a Language, Unchanged Since 1976