Sexy singing: Cultural evolution and sexual selection in a complex song display


The role of sexual selection in signal evolution is a major topic of evolutionary research, not least in vocal displays such as song. Are some songs attractive because of who sings them, or do they have inherent qualities that make them attractive when sung by anyone? Despite decades of research on sexual selection, this is not always clear. In humpback whales, only males sing, and thousands of males can rapidly replace their song by learning a new song in as little as two months, a feat unparalleled in the animal kingdom. Song presents an interplay between cultural evolution and sexual selection; however, we have little understanding of how the most complex vocal display in the animal kingdom is governed by these selective forces. This 5-year project seeks to explore the underlying selective forces interacting and governing various aspects of humpback whales song. These fundamental concepts are central to advancing our understanding of the evolution of complex communication in human and non-human animals, as cetaceans represent a unique example on the continuum of cultural complexity.

First field season complete

We had a very successful first field season in New Caledonia from 31 July until 13 September 2018. We got high quality song recordings and biopsy samples from a number of singers, some of which have been known for many years. Thanks team for a great season!


This project is funded by a University Research Fellowship from The Royal Society of London, and by National Geographic, The Carnegie Trust and the St Andrews School of Biology.

If you are interested in supporting this research, please contact Dr Garland.


Sexy singing:¬†Cultural evolution and sexual selection in a complex song display