Big Music

ae whalesResearcher Joy Reidenberg explores why and how whales sing at UCSC talk

Many body parts work together to make a song; diaphragms contract to bring air into the lungs, vocal folds vibrate, tongues and lips shape sounds. But with just a larynx and a mouth, we humans are limited.

Whales have us licked. They not only sing with more body parts than we do, but they also serenade each other while several hundred feet underwater. They’re mysterious, too, as scientists still can’t account for all the body parts whales use to sing or how they’re orchestrated to produce sound. The most promising route to solving the mystery may be through a celebrity anatomist and her fast-paced autopsies.

“We’re dealing with the biggest animals in the world, and the biggest sound-producing machinery in the world,” says biomedical researcher Joy Reidenberg. “They can make the loudest and longest songs with perhaps the most variety.”

Reidenberg knows that machinery better than most. She’s a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, where she studies and teaches comparative anatomy. She didn’t earn her celebrity status among science fans in the lecture hall, though. Reidenberg is best known for explaining and exploring the inner workings of large animals on Inside Nature’s Giants, a series of natural history documentaries where viewers have watched her dissect everything from racehorses to 65-foot fin whales.

Reidenberg has appeared in many other national documentaries and television shows, and even had a spread in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, O. Though she has disassembled all sorts of creatures, her main interest is in aquatic animals like whales. On Dec. 10 at UCSC, she’ll discuss how baleen whales produce their haunting serenades during her presentation, “The Secret of a Sexy Cetacean Song: Loud, Low, Lyrical, Loquacious, Layered, Long and Looping.”

“The trick with whales is that they’re carrying around evolutionary baggage from having been land animals,” says Reidenberg.

Because they evolved from aquatic dog-like creatures that existed over 50 million years ago, whale bodies bear the stamp of their terrestrial beginnings. Unlike fish that swim side-to-side, whale bodies undulate up and down like dogs and horses, and, similarly, they make noise with air. But they can’t just open their mouths while underwater. One of the adaptations they’ve evolved to sing while submerged, Reidenberg explains, is a kind of internal drum. “The larynx has been modified through evolution to have a sac in front of it,” says Reidenberg, “and we think that sac is acting like a drumhead, which helps transfer the vibrations to water.”

Reidenberg studies these structures and others by dissecting whale carcasses, which aren’t easy to work with. When a whale beaches, it’s only a short time before the tide reclaims the body. The dissection is physically demanding, too, as she often has to cut a path into the carcass.

“Trying to get access to the part we need takes time and heavy machinery,” says Reidenberg, “and not every whale strands in an area where we can get the machinery. Many times it’s a flash and burn kind of thing where you get in there, quickly grab what you need and get out.”

Her findings have many implications, from conservation to technology. “Whales live in a world of sound,” says Reidenberg. “How they communicate with each other or find food always involves sound in some way.” Scientists suggest noise pollution from ship engines and oil drilling have caused whale strandings, and it could disrupt their songs, which male baleen whales likely use to attract partners. “You can’t advertise that you’re ready to mate if there’s a ship making a noise in the same frequency range that you’re trying to sing in,” says Reidenberg. “It’s like trying to find a mate in a really loud, raucous party. No one can hear you doing this beautiful singing.” By studying their anatomy, we could learn whether or not whales can adapt to the noise pollution by singing in different frequencies.

The same research could inform future technology in underwater communication. “If you’re a diver and you want to talk to another diver, it’s really hard to do that, because your anatomy only allows you to make sounds in air,” says Reidenberg. “So if we had some sort of mechanism we could put on our throats and amplify the vibrations from the front of our neck, perhaps we could communicate underwater to each other in a more efficient manner.”

Dr. Reidenberg’s presentation will be 12:30 – 1:40 p.m., Dec. 10, in room 101 of the Natural Sciences Annex on the UCSC campus. 459-5358. Free.

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