Subject: singing whales - additional information

Dagmar Fertl (
Tue, 5 Jan 1999 12:57:01 -0500

     Eli Perrone:
     How do whales sing? I have done extensive research, and can not find 
     any info on this intriguing topic.
     I finally got a reply from the colleague at Mt. Sinai who does the 
     anatomical work on baleen whales.  Below is her reply, and she has provided 
     her email address if you have additional questions on the topic:
     Dear Dagmar:
     Thanks for thinking of me, and Happy New Year!
     Regarding the answer to the whalenet question: It is not really well
     understood how whales vocalize (sing).  Small whales and large whales have 
     completely different respiratory tract configurations, and thus probably 
     use very different mechanisms.  In the case of the small whales (e.g., 
     dolphins and porpoises), there appear to be multiple sound sources.  There 
     is reason to believe that sounds may be generated by both the nasal region 
     (e.g., Ted Cranford's work on the monkey lips / dorsal bursae complex) and 
     the laryngeal region (our own work on the midline vocal fold). It is quite 
     possible that these different regions produce different sound qualities 
     (e.g., one region for echolocation clicks, another region for whistles?), 
     or perhaps they work in concert to produce the final sound, with one area 
     generation the fundamental frequency and the other area modifying it by 
     reshaping the air space.  in the case of the baleen whales, even less is 
     known about how the produce sounds. 
     This is largely due to the lack of experimental observations.  Anatomical 
     evidence, however, suggests that they use the larynx for sound production.  
     The exact mechanism is not known, but is a current topic of our own 
     laboratory's research.  We hope to have something published on this very 
     soon.  Until then, I hesitate to put down here the mechanism that we 
     propose until it is published. If your questioner needs more information, 
     they can email me directly and I'll try to give them more details.  Suffice 
     it to say that it may involve vibration of structures within the larynx.  
     The pouch (laryngeal air sac) probably doesn't generate the sounds per say, 
     but may have a role in their transferral to water as well as air recycling.
     I hope this helps!
     Joy Reidenberg, Ph.D.
     Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy Box 1007, Dept. Cell 
     Mount Sinai School of Medicine
     1 Gustave L. Levy Place
     New York, NY 10029-6574