Sperm Whales Speak in 'Clan Dialects'

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Public Domain. NOAA

Humans might be forgiven for believing that they are the only species that engages in a level of social learning complex enough to form distinct cultures, generating things like language and art. But from dolphins to prairie dogs, science is showing that many animals do have complex language systems.

In a study recently published in Nature Communications, researchers have found that sperm whales not only have such a language system, but that they seem to have distinct dialects, suggesting that these whales use cultural learning to form multilevel, social structures, where individual whales with the same behaviors seem to band together in what the scientists are calling "clans."

These "clans" consist of whales that communicate with similar, dialect-like patterns of clicks called "codas," which were different from the echolocation sounds used for hunting. Surprisingly, these dialects are not linked to geography per se, with most young whales "conforming" and choosing to perform codas used by their families or social group, says Mauricio Cantor, one of the study's authors on CBC:

What is really interesting is they all use the same waters at the same time, so they could potentially hear or listen to all these codas, but they choose to stick with their own pattern.
Dalhousie University

Dalhousie University/via

The researchers used over 18 years of recorded whale communications in their study, in addition to employing computer simulations to find out how this surprising diversity of whale language might have evolved. It appears to come down to sperm whales sticking with others that behave and speak like themselves, explains Cantor:

Which is similar to what we see in human populations. I just find really, really fascinating that an animal that is completely different and lives in a completely different environment - they have some striking similarities with our societies... Our findings suggest another line of evidence for animal culture.
We all tend to interact more with like-minded individuals. If we figure out somehow that we're not as different [from] other animals, maybe we can improve our relationship with the natural world or with nature.

Read more over at CBC and Nature Communications.