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Icelandic hunting vessels in port

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Blue whale tail Christopher Swann

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Dolphin in captivity

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Scientists solve mystery of whale song

Humpback whale with calf

One of the big mysteries surrounding exactly how some of the great whales are able to sing has been solved by scientists.

Baleen whales (those without teeth), such as the humpback and blue whale, are well known for their complex and haunting underwater vocal calls that can reach thousands of miles through the ocean. But how they are able to do this has always been puzzling.

New research published in the journal Nature has revealed that these whales possess a special kind of voice box. It also confirms that man made noise pollution under the water is likely to be even more of a threat to them than previously thought because the frequency of whale song overlaps with the noise produced by ships.

Sound plays a crutial role in the lives of whales and dolphins. They live in a world of sound, using it to communicate, hunt, and socialise. Any interruptions from drilling the seabed, using loud pulses to survey for oil and gas at sea, military exercises, and large amounts of boat traffic can all disrupt their lives and sometimes cause them to strand on the shore and die.

This latest discovery was made when scientists used the large larynxes (voice boxes) taken from dead whales to try to replicate songs by blowing air through them. The human voice range comes from vibrations as air passes over the folds in our throats. But, air passes through a bent shape structure in a baleen whale larynx in such a way that they are able to recycle that air without breathing in water. The result is their incredible underwater song.

Find out more about whale culture and song here