High source levels and small active space of high-pitched song in bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus)

PLoS One. 2012;7(12):e52072. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0052072. Epub 2012 Dec 26.


The low-frequency, powerful vocalizations of blue and fin whales may potentially be detected by conspecifics across entire ocean basins. In contrast, humpback and bowhead whales produce equally powerful, but more complex broadband vocalizations composed of higher frequencies that suffer from higher attenuation. Here we evaluate the active space of high frequency song notes of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in Western Greenland using measurements of song source levels and ambient noise. Four independent, GPS-synchronized hydrophones were deployed through holes in the ice to localize vocalizing bowhead whales, estimate source levels and measure ambient noise. The song had a mean apparent source level of 185±2 dB rms re 1 µPa @ 1 m and a high mean centroid frequency of 444±48 Hz. Using measured ambient noise levels in the area and Arctic sound spreading models, the estimated active space of these song notes is between 40 and 130 km, an order of magnitude smaller than the estimated active space of low frequency blue and fin whale songs produced at similar source levels and for similar noise conditions. We propose that bowhead whales spatially compensate for their smaller communication range through mating aggregations that co-evolved with broadband song to form a complex and dynamic acoustically mediated sexual display.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustics*
  • Animals
  • Bowhead Whale / physiology*
  • Fin Whale / physiology
  • Humpback Whale / physiology
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal*
  • Singing / physiology*
  • Sound
  • Time Factors
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*

Grant support

This work was funded by the Oticon Foundation (grant # 08-3469 to Arctic Station, OT). OT and MC were additionally funded by AP Møller og Hustru Chastine Mc-Kinney Møllers Fond til almene Formaal, MS by a PhD scholarship from the Oticon Foundation, FHJ by a Danish Council for Independent Research, Natural Sciences post-doctoral grant, SEP by a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, and PTM by frame grants from the Danish Natural Science Research Council. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.