In the azure waters surrounding the Caribbean island of Dominica, scientists are making headway toward unraveling the language of the sperm whale, an endeavor that could pave the way for improved conservation strategies and may even transform long-held beliefs about human exceptionalism on our planet. In a paper published on May 7th, Baruch College’s Distinguished Professor of Biology and Environmental Sciences David Gruber, a leading figure in this research and president of the Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI), says the findings are uncovering the “phonetic alphabet” used by sperm whales to construct complex vocal sequences, akin to human words and phrases.

Sperm whales communicate through a series of rapid clicks often classified into larger groupings called codas — sounding something like an underwater Morse code. Scientists believe these sounds serve dual purposes. On the one hand, they act as a form of echolocation for hunting, and on the other they seem to represent an intricate system of communication within their tightly-knit social groups.

To gather the necessary data on this language system, Gruber’s team set up a vast underwater recording studio. This setup included microphones arrayed at multiple depths and tags attached to the whales to record their position and behavior during vocalizations — to see whether they were diving, sleeping, or interacting with others of their species.

From this extensive dataset of recorded whale codas, Gruber and his team discovered that the vocalizations possess both “contextual” and “combinatorial” structures. This means that the whales adjust their codas based on the perceived social context and often use different combinations of vocal elements to create a wide variety of signals, much like words in a sentence.

One significant finding of this study was the identification of unique features within the codas, what have been termed “rubato” and “ornamentation.” Rubato in whale communication involves subtle timing variations within a coda; ornamentation refers to the addition of extra clicks at the end of codas, which appear to serve specific communicative functions not previously recognized. These discoveries suggest that sperm whale communication is not only about emitting basic cues but involves a sophisticated use of vocal patterns, tones, and contextual meaning that can convey detailed information and possibly emotional expression. 

Gruber’s enthusiasm is clear when he talks about the potential of this research not only to protect these animals but also to offer insights into the evolutionary aspects of communication systems across different species. “We’re now starting to find the first building blocks of a whale language,” he said. By shedding light on how sperm whales communicate, this research expands our knowledge of marine biology and provides insights into our own place in the unfolding chain of cognitive development. 

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