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A Whale Chorus Reveals How Climate Change May Be Shifting Migration

A Whale Chorus Reveals How Climate Change May Be Shifting Migration

TOKYO - Eerie wails, explosive trumpets and ghostly moans. The sounds from the underwater recorders had a story to tell, even without a single intelligible word: the whales had stayed put.

The recordings gathered during the 2018-2019 winter in the freezing cold Arctic waters off Canada proved that a population of bowhead whales had skipped their usual migration south.

Scientists believe this behavior -- never previously detected -- could be driven by the effects of climate change and be a potential harbinger of shifting dynamics across the region's ecosystem.

Ordinarily, the approximately 20,000 bowheads that make up the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) population around Canada have a fairly predictable migration pattern spanning 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles).

They spend the winter in part of the Bering Sea, which lies between Russia and Alaska, and head north then east to the Beaufort Sea and Canada's Amundsen Gulf in the summer, before returning in the autumn.

But in winter 2018-2019, something different happened. Residents in the Canadian region reported seeing bowheads long after they would normally have disappeared south.

A team of scientists decided to comb through hours of audio recorded by underwater devices that are dotted around the region for regular data collection, listening for unusual sounds.

They found them: the distinctive calls of bowhead whales that should have been in their southern winter grounds but had stayed put.

Assisted by a trained computer program, they even found recordings of bowheads singing, a behavior believed to be associated with mating, which has never been recorded in the summer grounds before.

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