Whales Communicate by Making a Splash

MaREI researcher has paper published from PhD which investigates why whales breach

05 December 2016

Humpback whales are extremely active above the surface. They often breach, and slap the water with either their fins and tail flukes. Researchers now understand more about why the whales do these things; they say the behaviours are all forms of communication, as this BBC video here explains. This video is based on a research paper published this month in the journal Marine Mammal Science, co-written by MaREI researcher Ailbhe Kavanagh, from her PhD work in the University of Queensland, Australia.  The research finding was also picked up by New Scientist here.


As part of their social sound repertoire, migrating humpback whales perform a large variety of surface-active behaviors, such as breaching and repetitive slapping of the pectoral fins and tail flukes; however, little is known about what factors influence these behaviors and what their functions might be. We investigated the potential functions of surface-active behaviors in humpback whale groups by examining the social and environmental contexts in which they occurred. Focal observations on 94 different groups of whales were collected in conjunction with continuous acoustic monitoring, and data on the social and environmental context of each group. We propose that breaching may play a role in communication between distant groups as the probability of observing this behavior decreased significantly when the nearest whale group was within 4,000 m compared to beyond 4,000 m. Involvement in group interactions, such as the splitting of a group or a group joining with other whales, was an important factor in predicting the occurrence of pectoral, fluke, and peduncle slapping, and we suggest that they play a role in close-range or within-group communication. This study highlights the potentially important and diverse roles of surface-active behaviors in the communication of migrating humpback whales.

Read the full paper here.