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The Arctic’s Singing Whale

When George Crumb composed Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), he called for the small group of performers to wear black masks as they played, to symbolize “the powerful impersonal forces of nature (nature dehumanized).” 

This was in 1971, not during the COVID-19 pandemic. The score attracted international attention and has frequently been recorded, including by the International Contemporary Ensemble, heard here in a performance with commentary at the Chicago Humanities Festival.  

Crumb’s score (and masks!) would fit right in for an upcoming virtual event hosted by the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology: “The Arctic’s Singing Whale,” a one-hour presentation by Kate Stafford, Ph.D., senior principal oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle. 

Dr. Stafford’s research, as presented in a recent TED talk, focuses on “the acoustic environment of the Arctic and how declining sea ice and increasing industrial use affect marine animals,” according to Ingalls-Brown Professor of Anatomy Hans Thewissen, Ph.D

The oceanographer/bioacoustician studies the music of cetaceans (marine mammals, including whales, dolphins and porpoises). Dr. Stafford will discuss her work Thursday, March 11, from noon-1 p.m. in a virtual presentation.

What whale song teaches us about mammalian brains

Dr. Thewissen, who teaches in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology and invited Dr. Stafford to speak, says that studying the music of whales also adds to our understanding of how the brain works: 

Similar to humans, but unlike most other mammals, bowhead and humpback whale songs evolve over time: Whales listen to each other and add new elements to their repertoire by imitating motives invented by another individual. Thus, the songs that whales in one region sing change from year to year, and are different from the songs of whales that live elsewhere. This is in contrast to closely related right whales (a species of baleen whales), which do not sing, and blue and fin whales, which have simple songs that are similar across the species and stable over many decades. 

“Bowhead whales have brains roughly twice as large as those of humans, but the organization of their brain mirrors that of the hoofed animals they are related to, not those of primates. Understanding whale song teaches us about the plasticity of the auditory part of the mammalian brain.”  

Dr. Stafford’s presentation relates to the research on hearing, social communication, and brain plasticity being conducted within the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology’s Hearing Research Focus Area, as well as to the work in evolutionary development advanced by the Musculoskeletal Research Focus Area in the same department. NEOMED researchers are partners in the Kent State University’s Brain Health Research Institute

To request a link to Dr. Stafford’s presentation, call 330.325.6293.