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No. 64: Jul-Aug 1989

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Poets at sea: or why do whales rhyme?

We found the following in Newsweek:

"When scientists talk about whales singing songs, they're not talking about mere noise. They're talking about intricate, stylized compositions - some longer than symphonic movements - performed in medleys that can last up to 22 hours. The songs of humpback whales can change dramatically from year to year, yet each whale in an oceanwide population always sings the same song as the others. How, with the form changing so fast, does everyone keep the verses straight? Biologists Linda Guinee and Katharine Payne have been looking into the matter, and they have come up with an intriguing possibility. It seems that humpbacks, like humans, use rhyme."

Guinee and Payne suspect that whales rhyme because they have detected particular subphrases turning up in the same position in adjacent themes.

(Cowley, Geoffrey; "Rap Songs from the Deep," Newsweek, p. 63, March 20, 1989. Cr. J. Covey)

Comment. This is all wonderfully fascinating, but why do whales rhyme at all, or sing such long complex songs? Biologists fall back on that hackneyed old theory that it has something to do with mating and/or dominance displays. Next, we'll hear that human poets write poems only to improve their chances of breeding and passing their genes on to their progeny!

Reference. Whale "communication" is the subject of BMT8 in our catalog: Biologi cal Anomalies: Mammals I. Details here.

From Science Frontiers #64, JUL-AUG 1989. 1989-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987