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Vocal learning and vocal traditions provide a strong foundation for studying culture and its transmission in a number of species. Cetaceans show some of the most sophisticated and complex vocal and cultural behaviour in the animal kingdom, including vocal learning of song displays. Male humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) sing a long, complex, hierarchically structured and stereotyped song. Humpback whale song is considered the most elaborate acoustic display in the animal kingdom, and presents an extreme example of complexity and cultural evolution. At any point in time most males within a population will sing the same version (arrangement and content) of the song. However, the song is continually evolving and males must constantly incorporate these changes into their own song to maintain song conformity. In addition to evolutionary change, song also undergoes radical ‘revolutions’ where a song introduced from a neighbouring population rapidly and completely replaces the existing song. Multiple humpback whale song revolutions have spread across the South Pacific region from the east coast of Australia across to French Polynesia, with a one to two year delay. This has occurred regularly, rapidly and repeatedly across the region and represents the best example to date of population-wide horizontal cultural transmission in any non-human animal. However, we still have a limited understanding of the underlying drivers of this cultural phenomenon and its implications for vocal learning. I will discuss our current understanding of humpback whale song culture and some of the challenges in analysing this complex, multi-levelled and rapidly evolving vocal display. Understanding these challenges is important; in addition to cultural processes, song analyses can provide information on current population structure which can contribute to the conservation management of endangered humpback whale populations.
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