As part of their social sound repertoire, migrating humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) perform a large variety of surface-active behaviors, such as breaching and repetitive slapping of the pectoral fins and tail flukes; however, little is known about what factors influence these behaviors and what their functions might be. We investigated the potential functions of surface-active behaviors in humpback whale groups by examining the social and environmental contexts in which they occurred. Focal observations on 94 different groups of whales were collected in conjunction with continuous acoustic monitoring, and data on the social and environmental context of each group. We propose that breaching may play a role in communication between distant groups as the probability of observing this behavior decreased significantly when the nearest whale group was within 4,000 m compared to beyond 4,000 m. Involvement in group interactions, such as the splitting of a group or a group joining with other whales, was an important factor in predicting the occurrence of pectoral, fluke, and peduncle slapping, and we suggest that they play a role in close-range or within-group communication. This study highlights the potentially important and diverse roles of surface-active behaviors in the communication of migrating humpback whales.
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