The Complexity of Whale Communication

  • February 7, 2020
Toothed whales communicate in order to conduct a group nap, during which one member of the community watches over the rest of the sleeping whales.

Previously, a commonly accepted belief within the scientific community was that animals are intellectually inferior to humans. However, extensive research on whale behavior performed over the course of decades is proving the opposite: whales often have complex modes of communication that reveal companionship and individual identities within their communities. 

 Firstly, there are odontocete whales, or toothed whales, which primarily communicate through the use of high frequency clicks that are similar in function to echolocation. Developed when the toothed whale calves are four to six months old, these clicks aid in hunting by conveying the distance, size, shape, speed and vector of movement of their prey. However, their clicks are unique to the individual, allowing members of their communities to identify each other and communicate through clicks and “signature whistles” that comprise of the sounds they use most frequently throughout their lifetime. 

Secondly, there are sperm whales, which primarily live within organized clans that contain distinct “dialects.” According to Briticanna, “the sperm whale makes patterns of clicks called codas. These patterns can be mixed, and they seem to vary regionally across the world — serving, that is to say, as accents.” In addition, sperm whales can learn vocalization patterns from each other in a process known as social learning. This allows sperm whales with similar behaviors to organize into the aforementioned clans and develop a “culture” within their clan. 

Perhaps the most complex and well known whales are humpback whales. According to Briticanna, “the song of the humpback whale follows a repetitive pattern whose units seemed to be fixed – thus, grammar.” Humpback whales create scales of repetition that create units, which subsequently make up their whale song. Humpback whales that live within each other’s vicinity tend to have similar whale songs, and even repeat musical phrases found in regions thousands of kilometers away. This suggests that these whales socialize with whales even outside of their regions and learn part of their whale songs in the process. Besides their songs, humpback whales also pass on new feeding behaviors via their social networks, according to National Geographic. 

According to TED-Ed, sound travels approximately four times faster in water than on land; therefore, cetaceans, or marine mammals, are much more dependent on sound than land mammals. Unfortunately, the development of sonar in 1906 has had drastic impacts on their ability to communicate. According to Mr. Aghassi, “Whales are now bumping into objects that they should easily be able to avoid.” In addition, they purposely swim off course, rapidly change their depth (which subsequently leads to bleeding in the eyes and ears), and even beach themselves in order to get away from the sonar. 

This brings up the question of how we, as a collective society, can help prevent these negative effects on animals proven to be complex individuals. Perhaps it is time to limit our use of sonar in order to allow whales to not only coexist with humans, but to thrive.

Information comes from Britannica, National Geographic and Scientific American

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