What are whales saying to each other? Scientists are a step closer to finding out

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The Current16:06Decoding the sperm whale’s alphabet

Scientists have examined thousands of hours of sperm whale calls — bursts of clicks known as codas — and discovered a kind of phonetic alphabet that the animals use to communicate.

“What we’ve done here is really sort of expand … the library of potential codas that these animals are using,” said Shane Gero, a scientist-in-residence at Ottawa’s Carleton University and biology lead at Project CETI, a non-profit that studies sperm whale communication.

“[They’re] sort of building block parts, that they can combine in various different ways, freely, to make many, many, many more kinds of codas than we thought before,” he told The Current.

Gero is co-author of the study, which was published last week in Nature Communications. The researchers used artificial intelligence to crunch thousands of calls from about 60 sperm whales, recorded over 15 years off the Caribbean island of Dominica. Those calls were recorded by devices mounted on the backs of the whales, gathering audio as well as contextual data like the location, time of day, and even ocean temperature.

The findings are a step towards potentially one day decoding what whales are saying to each other — though Gero emphasized that’s still a long way off, if possible at all.

WATCH | The rapid-fire clicks that sperm whales use to communicate:

Here’s what sperm whales sound like

Sperm whales communicate using bursts of clicks that sound a little like Morse code. Scientists at Project CETI study that communication and synced drone footage of these sperm whales to a recording of their clicks beneath the surface. Thumbnail photo credit: Amanda Cotton. 

In the published paper, the researchers describe codas as “the basic units of sperm whale communication.” A coda contains of multiple clicks — sounding a little like Morse code — but is generally less than two seconds in duration. While researchers previously already knew that each coda can vary in rhythm and tempo, Gero said this new research adds two new ideas: rubato and ornamentation.

Rubato refers to an alteration in the duration of the calls, while Gero said ornamentation is where the whales will add an extra click to a coda. (Both terms, like coda, also appear in musical terminology.)

“There’s some indication that it happens around turn taking, so when one animal stops and another animal starts,” he said.

“We’ve been jokingly saying that it’s like the Canadians adding ‘eh?’ to the end of everything.”

A man stands on a boat, out at sea.
Shane Gero has studied the same whales in the Caribbean for about 20 years. (Submitted by The Dominica Sperm Whale Project)

What humans and whales have in common

Diana Reiss, a marine mammal behaviour and communication expert at the City University of New York, told The Associated Press that scientists understand some marine animal communication reasonably well, including the whistles used by dolphins and the songs sung by humpback whales. But our understanding of sperm whale communication is much more limited.

“What’s new in this study is that they are trying to look at the basis for the whales’ communication system … not just particular calls they’re making,” said Reiss, who was not involved in the study. 

Gero said the findings don’t point to something like the 26 letters in the English alphabet, and should be thought of more as phonemes, the “different building block sounds” that can be combined into distinct codas. 

“Those codas then get exchanged in long sequences that we call exchanges or choruses,” he said.

Gero noted that humans and whales alike are social animals, who prioritize family ties and support each other with caring for the young.

“These animals are the size of a school bus, they live in a part of the world that we find difficult to explore — and yet there’s fundamental similarities,” he said.

WATCH | Drone footage showing baby sperm whale being born:

Drone footage showing baby sperm whale being born

Drone footage showing baby sperm whale being born

Finding meaning in the deep

The researchers have not assigned specific meanings to the codas yet, with Gero emphasizing that they first need to understand the structure more completely. 

But he said one of the next steps is to examine the calls in the context of the whales’ behaviour — something that will be possible because the researchers have followed the same whales for years, and know their social structures.

“Is it a grandmother talking to a granddaughter? Is it a sister handing off the baby when they’re babysitting? Is it females from two different families communicating?” he said.

“That gives us the behaviour and social context to then ask the really important question of why are these animals speaking with each other.”

Reiss said she thinks we will never be able to understand what the clicks mean to another whale, but understanding “what the clicks mean enough to predict their behaviour” would in itself “be an amazing achievement.”

If the researchers do reach a point where they have assigned meaning to specific codas, they might attempt to engage the whales — playing codas to test if a whale’s response confirms the meaning. But Gero said that kind of experiment is years away, and not his personal priority. 

A group of sperm whales under water.
Sperm whales are very social animals, who prioritize familial ties. (Patrick Dykstra/Submitted by The Dominica Sperm Whale Project)

“That sort of two-way engagement isn’t what drives me,” he said. “I’ve been following the lives of these families for so long — my kids know their names.”

“I feel this sort of burden of trust … to speak on their behalf until they can do it for themselves.”

Sperm whales are classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, after centuries of being hunted for their oil. 

Jeremy Goldbogen, an associate professor of oceans at Stanford University who was not involved in the study, told AP that the new research “extraordinary,” saying it had “vast implications for how we understand ocean giants.”

He said that if we were one day able to understand what sperm whales were saying, that knowledge should be used for conservation purposes, like minimizing their risk of being hit by ships or reducing ocean noise levels.

If human-whale communication ever becomes possible, Gero said it could have implications for how humans understand ourselves and our own behaviour.

“Sperm whales have been sperm whales for longer than humans have walked upright. So maybe they have a lesson or two for us,” he said.

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