Sperm whales use sounds to signal social identity, scientists say

Sperm whales use sounds to signal social identity, scientists say

Sperm whales are among the deepest divers on the planet. They are natural submarines, spending 70% of their time looking for squid in the dark ocean for up to 80 minutes at a time. When they break through what Herman Melville called “the skin of the ocean,” they socialize, writhing and twisting their gray bodies around each other in a sensual and enigmatic choreography.

They measure up to 18 meters in length and have the largest brain on Earth. For at least 200 years, scientists have wondered what these mammals do with those brains. Evidence has now emerged that could revolutionize the way we think about whales.

The authors of a new article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presented evidence that sperm whale culture is characterized by “symbolic markings.”

In humans, symbolic signs such as clothing choice, hairstyle or tattoos show “who one is inside out”. It is implicit in what we wear, how we look, how we speak. Scientists have found that sperm whales, to express their culture, emit loud, detached pops from their heads.

Otherwise used to echolocate prey, these sounds can take the form of emitted morse code-like sequences that scientists refer to as “identity tails.” When different clans of whales unite, they seem to use these tails to identify themselves. They say: this is us.

The authors of the document believe that it is a social exchange, like a human conversation. “The signal can be received or directed to members of the same group (us) or members of different groups (them), or both,” Hal Whitehead, one of the authors, told The Guardian.

Whitehead said the new data suggests that “the presence of other groups (clans) affects symbols” – an audible demonstration of ethnic diversity in another species and evidence that social marking is not unique to humans.

The article identifies seven clans of whales in the Pacific Ocean whose discreet identities “perform functions within the umbrella of social bonding, similar to human music.”

Their clicks represent the taste of the whale, just as human taste is expressed in the fashion, hairstyles or piercings that advertise which group we identify with. Whales not only identify with their own clan, but also signal their clan membership with acoustic tattoos.

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Dr Taylor Hersh, the lead author of the paper, said the work showed “quantitative and compelling evidence” that the identification codes were used in this way by whales. “A clear human analogy,” he said, “is that if you see someone wearing a necklace with a cross or a star of David, you know just by looking at that symbol something about a group that the person considers a member of.”

Perhaps the most important conclusion is that these interactions have a decisive evolutionary aspect. “In humans, as cultural groups overlap more and more, we see more and more emphasis on these symbols. The same seems to happen with sperm whales, ”Hersh said.

As for what those clicks might mean, well, we might be in the process of finding out. In his new book, How to Speak Whale, released this week, director Tom Mustill discusses new advances that indicate that we may, in the near future, be able to “translate” whale communication using a complex set of systems of communication. listening to divers focus on a specific flock of sperm whales and determine exactly how they audibly react to different situations, such as changes in the weather, food sources and social behavior of the pack members.

By linking the sounds the whales make with what they’re doing at the moment, Mustill says, the fledgling Cetacean Translation Initiative (Ceti) hopes to provide a comprehensive set of data, from which AI analytics can establish the meaning of clicks.

Ceti will then use whale “chatbots” to predict what animals will say in certain situations and, in a science fiction leap, will attempt “two-way communication”, that is, respond to whales. It’s a scenario from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with only the alien wail of a black monolith replaced by the sonar click of a gray leviathan.

In the 1970s, recordings of humpback whales’ song proved to be the trigger that led to the successful Save the Whales campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. The song of the whales has opened our ears to the presence of a culture different from ours. Now, these revelations about the auditory culture of whales could be another turning point in our relationship with the rest of the natural world. It’s our Doctor Dolittle moment.

We may be in the process of having a conversation with whales. But the big question is: what will they say?

Did you know …?

  • Sperm whales get their name from the semi-liquid waxy substance in their heads called spermaceti, which is part of the process that makes their clicking sounds. It is so named because early biologists mistakenly assumed that the substance was whale sperm.

  • They are usually found in deep water. Females tend to stay between 40 degrees south and 40 degrees north, while males venture into latitudes as late as the 1970s both north and south. Their ranges are expanding as the world’s oceans warm up.

  • They can compress their rib cages and collapse their lungs to resist pressure during feeding, often at a depth of around 800m.

  • To defend against attacks, they are known to use a formation called Marguerite, in which they form a wagon wheel with their head in the center. They then use their tails to strike their attackers.

  • Throughout their history, sperm whales have been heavily hunted for substances including ambergris, a waxy substance that forms around the beaks of squid in the digestive systems of whales and is used extensively in perfumes.

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