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November 28, 2006


Humans converse.  Apes can sign.  Dolphins and orcas click and clack in a verbal Morse code.  And baleen whales sing.  

What’s the common link?  Spindle cells, a special type of brain cell, believed to be responsible for complex behaviors like tool usage, organizational behaviors and interactive communication.  

Many accept the intelligence of toothed whales (dolphins and orcas); their aptitude for learning has long been applied to everything from entertainment to military training.  The recent discovery of spindle cells in humpbacks supports a similar intelligence in baleen whales, mostly known for being very large.  But baleens are also responsible for the haunting sounds we sometimes fall asleep to at night.  With a broad range of frequencies, humpbacks and other baleens sing to find mates, call everyone together, sound the alarm, or just say “Hi.”  In fact, researchers studying whale song have noticed that feeding grounds and other areas frequented by baleens are quite noisy with their “chatter” (sounds like my favorite restaurant).

The ocean would be a very quiet place without them.

Photo courtesy of NOAA.