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How Scientists Discovered the Song of the Humpback Whale

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A whale calling out into the ocean can sound beautiful, haunting, and at times, completely inorganic. In the case of humpbacks, there is in fact something remarkably calculated about their songs—something scientists didn’t even know until around 50 years ago, and still don't fully understand today. 

It was around that time in 1968 when Katy Payne, a researcher in acoustic biology at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and her husband Roger, a biologist, met Navy engineer Frank Watlington on a trip to Bermuda. They were connected through a mutual friend who thought the Paynes and Watlington might hit it off over a mutual passion for whales. Just a few years earlier, in 1965, humpback whales had become so endangered that the International Whaling Commission placed a temporary ban on commercial hunting.

Watlington invited the couple onto his ship and played the recording below of a male humpback, which he had picked up while doing work with underwater microphones called hydrophones. At the time, the hydrophones were being used by the Navy to listen for enemy submarines.

"I had never heard anything like it," Katy told NPR. "Oh, my God, tears flowed from our cheeks. We were just completely transfixed and amazed because the sounds are so beautiful, so powerful—so variable. They were, as we learned later, the sounds of just one animal. Just one animal."

Watlington had kept the recordings a secret for fear that the songs of the humpbacks would be used to find and kill them. He instead handed them off to the Paynes, who found there was more to discover in them than anyone initially realized.

In an effort to “see” the sounds, Katy made spectrograms showing the frequencies in a purely visual way. It was in the spectrograms that she started to notice a structure and what appeared to be rhythms and melodies. As she’d discover, the vocal patterns of humpback males (they’re the only ones who sing) aren’t random, and whales in a group will sing a song in roughly the same way. The whales will also make changes through time—altering rhythm, pitch, and duration after listening to each other. In other words, it’s sort of like they’re engaged in one long songwriting session.

Scientists aren’t totally sure why the songs change, but Katy said it might have something to do with—what else?—attracting females. The males might be awarded for their innovations, not so unlike human courting methods.

Proving this phenomenon was occurring wasn’t easy. The Paynes spent years recording whales, jetting around the world listening to the music of the ocean—while making their own at night. In 1970, Capitol Records released an album of humpback whale songs recorded by Roger, Katy and Frank, which remains the best-selling nature sounds album of all time.

Years later, at a Greenpeace meeting in Vancouver, an anti-war activist played the whale songs for then-director Rex Weyler. At the time, the fledgling organization was looking for a cause to kickstart environmental efforts. With that, Save the Whales was born. Fast forward to earlier this year, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed changing the way humpback whales are classified under the Endangered Species Act. Of the 14 distinct populations in the species, only two would still be considered endangered and two would be classified as threatened.


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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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Why Do Dogs Crouch Forward When They’re Playing?
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iStock

Whether they're tilting their heads or exposing their bellies for rubs, dogs are experts at looking adorable. But these behaviors do more than elicit squeals from delighted humans; in many cases, they serve important evolutionary functions. A prime example is the "play bow": If you've ever seen a dog crouch forward with its elbows on the ground and its rear end in the air, wagging tail and all, then you know what it is. The position is the ultimate sign of playfulness, which is important for a species that often uses playtime as practice for attacking prey.

The play bow first evolved in canids as a form of communication. When a dog sees another dog it wants to play with, it extends its front paws forward and lifts up its behind as a visual invitation to engage in a friendly play session. Dogs will "bow" in the middle of playtime to show that they're having fun and wish to continue, or when a session has paused to signal they want to pick it back up. Play bows can also be a sort of apology: When the roughhousing gets too rough, a bow says, “I’m sorry I hurt you. Can we keep playing?”

Play between canines often mimics aggression, and starting off in a submissive position is a way for all participating parties to make sure they’re on the same page. It’s easy to see why such a cue would be useful; the more puzzling matter for researchers is why the ancestors of modern dogs evolved to play in the first place. One theory is that play is crucial to the social, cognitive, and physical development of puppies [PDF]. It’s an opportunity for them to interact with their own kind and learn important behaviors, like how to moderate the strength of their bites. Play also requires the animals to react quickly to new circumstances and assess complex actions from other dogs.

Shiba inus playing outside.
Taro the Shiba Inu, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Another evolutionary explanation is that playtime prepares puppies for the hunting they do later as adults. Watch two puppies play and you’ll see them stalking, biting, and pouncing on one another—all behaviors canines exhibit in the wild when taking down prey.

Of course, it’s also possible that dogs simply play because it’s fun. This is a strong case for why pet dogs continue to play into adulthood. “Devoting a lot of time to play may be less advantageous for a wild species who spends much of its time hunting or foraging for food, searching for mates, or avoiding predators,” Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, tells Mental Floss. “Many domestic dogs are provisioned by humans, and so have more time and energy to devote to play as adults.”

Because play is a lifelong activity for domestic dogs, owners of dogs of all ages have likely seen the play bow in person. Wild canids, like wolves, foxes, and coyotes, tend to reserve this behavior for members of their own species, but pet dogs often break out the bow for their humans—or anyone else who looks like they might be up for a play session. Grigg says, “One of my dogs regularly play bows to her favorite of our cats.”

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