Roger Searle Payne (1935–2023) | RIP

Roger Searle Payne (1935–2023) | Science

He changed the world. Humanity takes longer to come aboard.

Roger Searle Payne, the biologist who pioneered studies of whale behavior and communication and advocated for their protection, died on 10 June. He was 88. Payne was widely known to both scientists and the public for his groundbreaking discovery of the songs of humpback whales.

Born on 29 January 1935 in New York City, Payne received a BA in biology from Harvard University in 1956 and a PhD in animal behavior from Cornell University in 1961. From 1966 to 1984, he served as a biology and physiology professor at The Rockefeller University in New York. In 1971, Payne founded Ocean Alliance, an organization established to study and protect whales and their environment, and he remained its director until 2021.

Initially, Payne’s research focused on auditory localization in moths, owls, and bats, but he changed course to focus on conservation and selected whales for their status as a keystone species. In 1967, he and his then-wife Katharine (Katy) first heard the distinctive sounds of the humpback whales on a secret military recording intended to detect Russian submarines off the coast of Bermuda. Payne and his collaborators, including Scott McVay and Frank Watlington, were the first to discover that male humpback whales produce complex and varied calls. Mesmerized by the recordings, Payne realized that the recurring pattern and rhythmicity constituted a song. He published his findings in a seminal Science paper in 1971. After many years and many additional recordings, he and Katy further realized that the songs varied and changed seasonally.

These hauntingly beautiful whale songs captured the public’s attention thanks to Payne’s extraordinary vision. He released an album, Songs of the Humpback Whale, in 1970 that included a booklet in English and Japanese about whale behavior and the dire situation that many species of whales faced. He recognized the power of juxtaposing the plaintive and ethereal songs of humpbacks with images of whaling.

The album remains the most popular nature recording in history, with more than two million copies sold. Humpback whale songs are now carried aboard the Voyager spacecrafts as part of the signature of our planet.