High background noise is an important obstacle in successful signal detection and perception of an intended acoustic signal. To overcome this problem, many animals modify their acoustic signal by increasing the repetition rate, duration, amplitude or frequency range of the signal. An alternative method to ensure successful signal reception, yet to be tested in animals, involves the use of two different types of signal, where one signal type may enhance the other in periods of high background noise. Humpback whale communication signals comprise two different types: vocal signals, and surface-generated signals such as ‘breaching’ or ‘pectoral slapping’. We found that humpback whales gradually switched from primarily vocal to primarily surface-generated communication in increasing wind speeds and background noise levels, though kept both signal types in their repertoire. Vocal signals have the advantage of having higher information content but may have the disadvantage of loosing this information in a noisy environment. Surface-generated sounds have energy distributed over a greater frequency range and may be less likely to become confused in periods of high wind-generated noise but have less information content when compared with vocal sounds. Therefore, surface-generated sounds may improve detection or enhance the perception of vocal signals in a noisy environment.
Dunlop, R. A., Cato, D. H., & Noad, M. J. (2010). Your attention please: increasing ambient noise levels elicits a change in communication behaviour in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1693), 2521-2529. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2009.2319