Global cultural evolutionary model of humpback whale song

Elisabeth Zandberg, Robert Lachlan, Luca Lamoni, Ellen C. Garland

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Humpback whale song is an extraordinary example of vocal cultural behaviour. In northern populations, the complex songs show long-lasting traditions that slowly evolve, while in the South Pacific, periodic revolutions occur when songs are adopted from neighbouring populations and rapidly spread. In this species, vocal learning cannot be studied in the laboratory, learning is instead inferred from the songs’ complexity and patterns of transmission. Here, we used individual-based cultural evolutionary simulations of the entire Southern and Northern Hemisphere humpback whale populations to formalise this process of inference. We modelled processes of song mutation and patterns of contact among populations and compared our model with patterns of song theme sharing measured in South Pacific populations. Low levels of mutation in combination with rare population interactions were sufficient to closely fit the pattern of diversity in the South Pacific, including the distinctive pattern of West-to-East revolutions. Interestingly, the same learning parameters that gave rise to revolutions in the Southern Hemisphere simulations gave rise to evolutionary patterns of cultural evolution in the Northern Hemisphere populations. Our study demonstrates how cultural evolutionary approaches can be used to make inferences about the learning processes underlying cultural transmission and how they might generate emergent population-level processes.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1836
Early online date6 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 25 Oct 2021


  • vocal learning
  • individual-based simulations
  • song
  • cultural evolution
  • cultural transmission

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