East Coast whales ‘whisper’ to their babies to avoid attracting sharks, study finds


Cunning whales in the North Atlantic have developed the ability to “whisper” to their young as a way to avoid attracting hungry sharks, according to a study that included Duke University scientists.

While adult whales have little to fear (they grow to 50 feet), their calves are vulnerable to attack from multiple species of sharks and orca whales, Duke officials noted in a release.

Scientist involved in the study discovered new mother whales have adapted by developing the ability to “drastically reduce” the sounds they make communicating with their young, officials said.

Sharp “whoops” that can be heard far away were replaced with “a very quiet, short, grunt-like sound that isn’t audible more than a short distance,” a release said.

In essence, right whale moms have developed the very human ability to whisper, the scientists summarized.

“They (the quieter sounds) allow the mother and calf to stay in touch with each other without advertising their presence to potential predators,” Syracuse University biology professor Susan Parks said in a release.

The study, published Oct. 9, included scientists from Syracuse, Duke and NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast Fisheries Center, officials said. The team collected data by attaching recording devices to right whales using suction cups, officials said.

The test subjects were all mothers or mothers-to-be, off the coasts of Florida and Georgia, a release said.

“Right whales face a number of challenges, including a very low number of calves born in recent years, combined with a number of deaths of reproductive females by collisions with large ships or entanglement in fishing gear,” Parks said in a release.

Right whales are endangered and the study noted only about “500 individuals left in the entire species.” Thirty North Atlantic right whales have died in the past three years, Duke officials said.

“There are still many things we don’t know about their behaviors, and it is my hope that studies like this will help to improve efforts for their conservation,” Parks said in a release.

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