Cetaceans are the next frontier for vocal rhythm research

Hersh, T. A., Ravignani, A., & Whitehead, H. (2024). Cetaceans are the next frontier for vocal rhythm research. PNAS, 121(25): e2313093121. doi:10.1073/pnas.2313093121.
While rhythm can facilitate and enhance many aspects of behavior, its evolutionary trajectory in vocal communication systems remains enigmatic. We can trace evolutionary processes by investigating rhythmic abilities in different species, but research to date has largely focused on songbirds and primates. We present evidence that cetaceans—whales, dolphins, and porpoises—are a missing piece of the puzzle for understanding why rhythm evolved in vocal communication systems. Cetaceans not only produce rhythmic vocalizations but also exhibit behaviors known or thought to play a role in the evolution of different features of rhythm. These behaviors include vocal learning abilities, advanced breathing control, sexually selected vocal displays, prolonged mother–infant bonds, and behavioral synchronization. The untapped comparative potential of cetaceans is further enhanced by high interspecific diversity, which generates natural ranges of vocal and social complexity for investigating various evolutionary hypotheses. We show that rhythm (particularly isochronous rhythm, when sounds are equally spaced in time) is prevalent in cetacean vocalizations but is used in different contexts by baleen and toothed whales. We also highlight key questions and research areas that will enhance understanding of vocal rhythms across taxa. By coupling an infraorder-level taxonomic assessment of vocal rhythm production with comparisons to other species, we illustrate how broadly comparative research can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the prevalence, evolution, and possible functions of rhythm in animal communication.
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