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Singing whales are music to the ears of scientists

By Agencies in Sydney | China Daily | Updated: 2013-03-28 07:16

 Singing whales are music to the ears of scientists

A boy crawls out of a life-size replica of a blue whale heart during a preview of Whales: Giant of the Deep, the latest special exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, on March 20. Emmanuel Dunand / Agence France-Presse


An Australian-led group of scientists has for the first time tracked down and tagged Antarctic blue whales by using acoustic technology to follow their songs, the nation's government said on Wednesday.

The blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, is rarely spotted in the Southern Ocean but a group of intrepid researchers were able to locate and tag some of the mammals after picking up their deep and complex vocals.

Researcher Virginia Andrews-Goff said it was the first time acoustics have been used to lead researchers to the whales in real time, with those monitoring the whale noises working around the clock to pinpoint them.

"They are quite, almost alien-like, deep resonating sounds. They are quite intense. Very interesting to listen to."

Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke said: "The achievements of this non-lethal research method clearly show it is not necessary to kill whales in order to study them."

The group plans to present its results at this year's meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the international body set up to manage whales.

Giant mammal

Burke said the researchers, who spent seven weeks working from small boats in freezing Antarctic conditions, were captivated by the remarkable behavior of the whales they saw.

"The Antarctic blue whale can grow to more than 30 meters in length and weigh up to 180 tons - its tongue alone is heavier than an elephant, and its heart is as big as a small car," Burke said.

"Even the largest dinosaur was smaller than the blue whale."

Andrews-Goff said the scientists were often out in boats only six meters in length, sitting alongside the 30-meter giants.

"I felt like an ant next to one of these massive whales. They are huge," she said.

The scientists collected 23 biopsy samples and attached satellite tags to two of the whales, giving them never-before obtained data on the animals' movements during their summer feeding season and their foraging behavior.

"This method of studying Antarctic blue whales has been so successful it will now become the blueprint for other whale researchers across the world," Andrews-Goff predicted.

She said while one tag stopped working after 17 days, the second was still working after two weeks, although erratically.

"We know very little about Antarctic blue whales' movement, we don't really know migration patterns, we don't really know if some animals migrate and some animals don't," she said.


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