Roger Payne

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Roger Searle Payne
Born (1935-01-29) January 29, 1935 (age 87)
EducationHarvard University (BA, 1957)
Cornell University (PhD, 1961)
OccupationZoologist, researcher, science administrator, conservationist
Employer(s)Ocean Alliance, President
Known forDiscovery of whale song amongst humpback whales
(m. 1960; div. 1985)

(m. 1991)
Parent(s)Edward Payne
Elizabeth Payne

Roger Searle Payne (born January 29, 1935) is an American biologist and environmentalist famous for the 1967 discovery (with Scott McVay) of whale song among humpback whales. Payne later became an important figure in the worldwide campaign to end commercial whaling.


Payne was born in New York, New York, and received his BA degree at Harvard University and his Ph.D. at Cornell. He spent the early years of his career studying echolocation in bats (and how their food, moths, avoid them) and auditory localization in owls. Desiring to work with something more directly linked to conservation he later focused his research on whales where, together with researcher Scott McVay, in 1967 they discovered the complex sonic arrangements performed by the male humpback whales during the breeding season. These findings were published in the article Songs of humpback whales in 1971.[1]

Payne describes the whale songs as "exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound" with long repeated "themes", each song lasting up to 30 minutes and sung by an entire group of male humpbacks at once. The songs would be varied slightly between each breeding season, with a few new phrases added on and a few others dropped.[2] Payne has led many expeditions on the world's oceans studying whales, their migrations, cultures and vocalizations.[3]

Payne was also the first to suggest fin whales and blue whales can communicate with sound[4] across whole oceans, a theory since confirmed.[citation needed]

Some of Payne's recordings were released in 1970 as an LP called Songs of the Humpback Whale (still the best-selling nature sound record of all time[3]) which helped to gain momentum for the Save the Whales movement seeking to end commercial whaling, which at the time was pushing many species dangerously close to extinction. Commercial whaling was finally banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986.

In 1975 a second LP was released, and in 1987 Payne collaborated with musician Paul Winter putting whalesong to human music.

Whale recordings by Frank Watlington (with commentary by Roger Payne) were released on a Flexi disc soundsheet inside the January 1979 National Geographic magazine. This issue, at 10.5 million copies, became the largest single press run of any record at the time.[3][5]

In addition to whale recordings Payne has also published books and worked with film crews on many television documentary productions and on the IMAX movie Whales: An Unforgettable Journey.

In 1971, Payne founded Ocean Alliance, a 501(c)3 organization working with whale and ocean conservation. It is based in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He still heads the organization. He was also an assistant professor of biology at Rockefeller University and, concurrently, a research zoologist at the Institute for Research in Animal Behavior (IRAB), run by Rockefeller University and the Wildlife Conservation Society, then known as the New York Zoological Society. IRAB was succeeded by the Wildlife Conservation Society's Center for Field Biology and Conservation (CFBC) in 1972, and Payne continued as a Wildlife Conservation Society research zoologist and Scientific Director of the Society's Whale Fund until 1983.[6][7]

From 1960 to 1985 Roger Payne was married to noted elephant researcher Katharine Payne, who performed similar research on the vocalizations of elephants and humpbacks.[8]

Cultural influence[edit]



  1. ^ Payne, Roger S.; McVay, Scott (1971). "Songs of Humpback Whales". Science. 173 (3997): 585–597. Bibcode:1971Sci...173..585P. doi:10.1126/science.173.3997.585. PMID 17833100. S2CID 1895141.
  2. ^ "Song Structure - Whale Trust Maui". Archived from the original on 26 October 2014. Retrieved 13 January 2022.
  3. ^ a b c "PBS - the Voyage of the Odyssey - Track the Voyage - Meet the Crew". Archived from the original on 26 June 2001. Retrieved 13 January 2022.
  4. ^ Širović, Ana; Hildebrand, John A.; Wiggins, Sean M. (August 2007). "Blue and fin whale call source levels and propagation range in the Southern Ocean". The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 122 (2): 1208–1215. Bibcode:2007ASAJ..122.1208S. doi:10.1121/1.2749452. PMID 17672667.
  5. ^ "Archived copy". National Geographic Society. Archived from the original on 2015-07-23. Retrieved 2015-05-19.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ "Roger Searle Payne." Marquis Who's Who TM. Marquis Who's Who, 2008. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale, 2009. Fee, via Fairfax County Public Library. Accessed 2009-04-09. Document Number: K2014856565.
  7. ^ "New York Zoological Society. Center for Field Biology and Conservation records". WCS Archives Finding Aids. Wildlife Conservation Society. Retrieved 28 November 2022.
  8. ^ Cowley, Geoffrey (20 March 1989). "Rap Songs from the Deep". Newsweek. p. 63.
  9. ^ "Liner Notes for Judy Collins's "Whales and Nightingales"". Retrieved 2020-04-13.

External links[edit]