The whales that speak in code

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Source: BBC

Near the Caribbean island of Dominica, there is one group of sperm whales that has interested researchers for over a decade.

Like others in their species, they have complex social lives. But what makes this particular group special is that they live in small family units, allowing researchers to quickly identify individual whales.

The ability to do this has offered us unprecedented insights into their world. For instance, we know that sperm whales remember their friends and family units for many years.

Researchers have now tried to establish exactly how the whales keep track of each other.

(Credit: Amanda Cotton/acottonphoto.com)

Calves take over two years to learn to make the coda (click) types accurately (Credit: Amanda Cotton/acottonphoto.com)

In the depths of the murky ocean, recognising a mate by sight alone would be difficult.

This one call is variable enough amongst individuals in a family that we can tell them apart

It has now become apparent that each individual whale makes unique calls. These are similar to two kinds of markers that humans use to identify ourselves: our names and voices.

Each whale produces short bursts of clicks called “codas”. They are so distinct, researchers can identify the whales from sound alone.

“Traditionally we identify sperm whales with pictures of their tails, but once they’re chatting it’s hard to say who’s doing what [using their tails alone],” says lead author Shane Gero of Aarhus University in Denmark. “This one call is variable enough amongst individuals in a family that we can tell them apart.”

You can listen to an individual call in the audio clip below.The whales’ language abilities go further. As well as the close-knit families that they live in for their entire lives, they also belong to larger “clans”: with specific dialects to match.

(Credit: Marina Milligan/ Dominica Sperm Whale Project)

Male sperm whales can be up to a third larger than adult females (Credit: Marina Milligan/ Dominica Sperm Whale Project)

The Caribbean clan members do not meet often, but when they do they use specific codas. You can hear an example of this in the clip below. All clan members produce these codas in a specific way, which researchers cannot tell apart.

These clans can consist of several hundred individuals. They all “speak” in the same patterns of clicks even if they live thousands of miles apart.

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