Dr Ellen Garland

Royal Society University Research Fellow

Harold Mitchell 305
tel. +44-7478-649964

Research Interests

My board research interests include animal culture, social learning, bioacoustics, and behavioural ecology. My main research focuses on cetaceans, and in particular the cultural transmission, vocal learning, and function of humpback whale song. I am also interested in vocal sequence analysis techniques, and using similarity in vocal displays to define population structures for conservation management.


University Research Fellowship

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 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. 


Previous postdoctoral fellowships:

Newton International Fellowship (University of St Andrews)

Culture in whales: transmission of a complex display

Animal culture and social learning is a ground-breaking area of research, with growing evidence of cultural processes in primates, cetaceans, and birds. Humpback whale songs are one of the most startling examples of transmission of a cultural trait and social learning in any non-human animal. Recent work has demonstrated a clear pattern of complete population-wide changes that were replicated in multiple populations over a vast geographic region. The level and rate of change is unparalleled in the animal kingdom; humpback whales are thus excellent models for studying cultural evolution processes in non-humans. Research conducted during my Newton fellowship into song learning has revealed that humpback whales employ some of the same learning mechanisms as songbirds and humans when acquiring a new song, which we recently published in PNAS.


National Academy of Sciences (NRC) Postdoctoral Fellowship (Marine Mammal Lab, AFSC/NOAA)

Geographic variation in the dialects of Alaskan Arctic beluga populations

Populations of beluga seasonally migrate to summering areas within the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The aim of this study was to identify population-specific differences in call characteristics or dialects among the three populations of beluga (eastern Beaufort Sea, eastern Chukchi Sea and Norton Sound) that migrate annually to the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, to provide baseline information for noise impact studies in the region. This work allowed previously unresolved population movements throughout the Alaskan region to be traced using fine-scale differences in spatio-temporal peaks in calling, and highlighted the successful application of acoustical studies to improve our understanding of stock structure for management and conservation in a region undergoing rapid climate change.



Stafford, KM, Ferguson, MC, Hauser, DDW, Okkonen, SR, Berchok, CL, Citta, JJ, Clarke, JT, Garland, EC, Jones, J & Suydam, RS 2018, 'Beluga whales in the western Beaufort Sea: current state of knowledge on timing, distribution, habitat use and environmental drivers' Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, vol. 152, pp. 182-194. DOI: 10.1016/j.dsr2.2016.11.017
Mcloughlin, M, Lamoni, L, Garland, EC, Ingram, S, Kirke, A, Noad, MJ, Rendell, L & Miranda, E 2018, 'Using agent-based models to understand the role of individuals in the song evolution of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)' Music & Science, vol. 1. DOI: 10.1177/2059204318757021
Allen, JA, Murray, A, Noad, MJ, Dunlop, RA & Garland, EC 2017, 'Using self-organizing maps to classify humpback whale song units and quantify their similarity' Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, vol. 142, no. 4, pp. 1943-1952. DOI: 10.1121/1.4982040
Garland, EC, Rendell, L, Lilley, MS, Poole, MM, Allen, J & Noad, MJ 2017, 'The devil is in the detail: quantifying vocal variation in a complex, multi-levelled, and rapidly evolving display' Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, vol. 142, no. 1, pp. 460-472. DOI: 10.1121/1.4991320
Garland, EC, Rendell, L, Lamoni, L, Poole, MM & Noad, MJ 2017, 'Song hybridization events during revolutionary song change provide insights into cultural transmission in humpback whales' Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 114, no. 30, pp. 7822-7829. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1621072114
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