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No. 119: Sep-Oct 1998

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Mapping With A Song

The songs of the humpback whale are complex and eerily melodic. Only the male humpbacks sing, and then only during the mating season. In contrast, the songs of blue whales are exceedingly dull. They consist of only five notes repeated in various combinations. Since both sexes sing most of the year, the songs of the blue whale probably have nothing to do with reproduction. Then, why do they sing?

A clue to the purpose of the blue whales' songs is found in their precision timing. One note is sung every 128 seconds. Furthermore, these notes (sound pulses) carry for hundreds of kilometers. C. Clark, a Cornell scientist, believes these notes are really sonar pulses used for fixing a whale's location. Echoes returned from distant seamounts, continental shelves, and other undersea topography enable the whales to map their positions within the wide ocean basins as they wander far and wide.

(Hecht, Jeff; "Rhythm of Blues Charts the Ocean Depths," New Scientist, p. 19, June 20, 1998.)

Comment. Short-range sonar is widely used by bats, Oilbirds, Edible-nest Swifts, and, of course, dolphins. As far as we know, the blue whale is the only animal employing sonar for longrange mapping. However, some birds seem to use distant infrasound sources (ocean surf, wind flowing over mountain ranges, etc.) as crude beacons during migration.

From Science Frontiers #119, SEP-OCT 1998. 1998-2000 William R. Corliss

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  • "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