Humpback whales learn songs in segments - in a similar way to how humans acquire language skills - and can even remix them, a study has found. "All the males in a population sing the same complex song, but the pattern of song changes with time, sometimes quite rapidly, across the population," said Michael Noad, professor at University of Queensland in Australia. Learning new songs is a form of what is known as 'social learning', which is where individual animals learn behaviours from each other rather than having them passed on from one generation to another genetically. Researchers focused on whale songs that were in the process of changing from one type to another. They found that whales could combine segments of songs in predictable ways if the underlying structural pattern was similar. Researchers recorded many individual singers from several populations, including the eastern Australian population and other populations in the South Pacific. They looked for songs that were caught in the act of changing; songs that had some of the old songs as well as some of the new ones. The team found that these rare 'hybrid' songs, the themes of the songs, either old or new, were intact, showing that the whales probably learn songs theme-by-theme like the verse of a human song. They also found that when researchers switched mid-song from old to new or new to old, it was during a theme most similar to another theme in either old or new songs, researchers said. "These themes may have been used as a way of bridging the old and new songs and therefore help with social learning," Noad said. "This provides some evidence for how animals rapidly learn large, complex displays and may have relevance for understanding how human language, the most outstanding example of social learning, evolved," he added. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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