University of Iceland

Ph.D. defense in Biology – Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Ph.D. defense in Biology – Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Friday, May 19, 2017 - 13:00
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On Friday the 19th of May, Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir will defend her Ph.D. thesis in Biology. The thesis is titled The singing behaviour of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in subarctic waters.

Adviser is Dr. Jörundur Svavarsson, Professor at the University of Iceland

The assessment committe included Dr. Marianne H. Rasmussen, Director, The University of Iceland's Research Centre in Húsavík, Professor Patrick Miller, School of Biology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland, UK, Professor Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, Nuuk, Greenland.



The cyclically-repeated song of the male humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is an important social display on their breeding grounds, functioning in male-male interactions and/or as a reproductive display to attract females. The songs are gradually synchronized into a predominant pattern shared by the majority of the singers. Transmission of songs within an ocean basin is evidently important for vocal convergence within a population and for sharing song components with other breeding populations. Songs of humpback whales have traditionally been associated with tropical or subtropical breeding grounds, however, a growing body of literature shows that songs are also sung on high-latitude feeding grounds and during migration. The purpose of the high-latitude singing is, however, not clear.

This study provides detailed analyses of humpback whale songs recorded in the subarctic waters of Iceland using passive acoustic recorders collected in 2008–2009, 2009–2010, and 2011 during which singing was detected in all years. Peak song occurrence was detected during the months of January and February in all years, this timing overlaps with the timing of the peak breeding season of humpback whales in the Northern hemisphere. Songs were only detected during the winter months whereas other non-song sounds were detected throughout the year. The songs observed in Iceland were decomposed to the unit and phrase level and compared to songs recorded on traditional humpback breeding grounds in the North Atlantic, i.e. the Cape Verde in 2011–2012 and the West Indies in 2012. The aim was to investigate the purpose of singing in the subarctic and find if these songs could have a role in the cultural transmission of humpback whale songs in the North Atlantic. Markov matrices were utilised to observe the cyclical pattern and consistency of the songs in the subarctic and subtropics whereas similarity analysis (Levenshtein Distance, Levenshtein Similarity Index and Dice’s Similarity Index) were used to measure the song progression in Iceland and the level of song sharing between Iceland and the subtropical breeding grounds.

The results showed that continual singing of consistent songs with a typical progression pattern occur during the breeding season in the subarctic. Furthermore, the findings clearly suggest that songs are transmitted between individuals on the joint Icelandic subarctic feeding ground. This indicates the importance of subarctic waters as a winter habitat, resulting in cultural transmission of songs and as a potential mating ground for overwintering humpback whales.


About the Ph.D. student

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir was born in Durham, England in 1981 and grew up in Reykjavík. Edda has two sons, Aðalsteinn Logi Bernharðsson who is 6 and Arnar Magnús Bryden Swift who is 9 months old. Her partner is Martin Jónas Swift a physicist and a teacher.

Edda finished her BSc degree in Biology at the University of Iceland in 2005 and an M.Paed degree in Biology and Pedagogy at the University of Iceland in 2007. The following winter, in 2007–2008, she worked as a science teacher at the Junior College of Northwest Iceland. Edda started her PhD in Biology at the University of Iceland in the fall of 2008 which was conducted at the University of Iceland‘s Research Center in Húsavík.

Alongside her PhD study she has taught Biology and related subjects at various institutions, such as at the University of Iceland, the University Centre of the Westfiords and at the Junior College Menntaskólinn við Sund. Edda has also been a supervisor for graduate and undergraduate students in Biology at the University of Iceland.

Edda has actively contributed to science communication about whales during her studies. For example, with various talks designed for the public, as a teacher at the University of the Youth and the Science Train, and with information material for the Whale Museum „Whales of Iceland“. Along with her supervisor Marianne Rasmussen and others Edda published an audio book for the public about the songs and sounds of the Icelandic humpback whale.

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