Tuesday 21 February 2012

Review + FOTD #2 - Sperm Whales

As mentioned earlier I recently read the book Why Bird's Sing:

The author, David Rothenberg, is a philosopher and musician. He uses both fields of study to break apart the scientific mystery and comes to some unique conclusions.

One of the first facts/stories he recounts (I've included it below) involves Sperm Whales. Essentially a bunch of scientists were studying the songs/calls of the whales and couldn't decipher the sounds until they hired the help of a musician.

It's a good example of why scientists shouldn't simply rely on logic and regimented procedures but should try to be more creative and use the resources available to them when trying to solve problems. Especially in this case, considering that the question (Why Bird's Sing) involves music it seems logical to use the help of a musician. "Scientists should employ the skills of musicians and poets, who have used different human abilities to find meaning in the natural world".

Sounds like something a hippy would say! But the story below should help explain the idea.

The book doesn't come to any really shocking conclusions. Actually I don't think it really made any conclusions, it was just a constant discussion about different birds and their habits involving singing. The male Albert's Lyrebird in Australia apparently sings the exact same song as its counterparts in the same region. It takes a new male a few years to learn the segments of the song (which is almost entirely mimicked) and they perform it with little variation. This species may have been singing the same song for several hundred years!

I would recommend the book to someone who's interested in something 'different'. You're not going to get any of the typical discussion about identification or bird topography. I wouldn't say it's a 'must read', but if you're list of books to read is dwindling low and you're looking for a different perspective on bird behaviour this is it! I sure learned a lot of cool facts and stories which I've been posting. It's also helpful to know some/all birds from all regions of the world. I don't think I had heard of about half the species making me not appreciate their abilities as much.

Anyway, enough boring talk. Hopefully you find this fact interesting:


Two scientists were studying the rhythmic, click-like sounds of sperm whales for several years off the Canary Islands when they made a recording they couldn't figure out. They couldn't identify the individual whales simply by listening to all the clicks - there were too many overlapping rhythms!

It's the same problem Western listeners have when they first hear a large ensemble of tight West African drummers. How can each player maintain their individual rhythms amid the great mix of patterns and beats?
The scientists had the idea of getting a Senegalese drum master to help them. With his highly trained ear, he could hear the individual statements inside the mix, and was able to pick out specific whales' rhythms from the quick-beating fray. The scientists concluded that each whale has its own distinctive click train rhythm, a result that no previous study had found.

An interesting conclusion that goes a long way towards demonstrating that whales are intelligent and most likely can communicate. Meaning that we humans aren't as unique as we once thought.

Quoted from "Why Bird's Sing".