Scientists discover sperm whale ‘phonetic alphabet’

Study reveals whale clicks make up building blocks of language, pointing to potential parallels with human society.

Scientists studying sperm whales have discovered that they communicate through a sort of “phonetic alphabet”, enabling them to build a rough equivalent of what humans refer to as words and phrases.

The study, published on Tuesday, involved sperm whales living around the Caribbean island of Dominica, describing how they communicate by squeezing air through their respiratory systems to make rapid clicks resembling Morse code, with sets of the noises making up the basic building blocks of language.

Research showed the “expressivity” of sperm whale calls was bigger than previously thought, said Pratyusha Sharma, a lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

“We do not know yet what they are saying. We are studying the calls in their behavioural contexts next to understand what sperm whales might be communicating about,” she said.

Scientists have been trying for decades to understand how sperm whales communicate. The researchers, part of the Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) machine learning team, created a giant underwater recording studio with microphones at different depths to examine calls made by about 60 whales, which were tagged to ascertain if they were diving, sleeping or breathing at the surface while clicking.

Having analysed more than 8,700 snippets of sperm whale clicks, known as codas, the researchers claim to have found four basic components making up a “phonetic alphabet”.

Sharma said the alphabet could be used by the whales in an unlimited number of combinations, much as humans combine sounds to produce words and words to produce sentences.

David Gruber, founder and president of CETI, said millions and possibly billions of whale codas would be needed to collect enough data to try to work out what the whales are saying, but he expects artificial intelligence (AI) to help speed the analysis. He said other sperm whale populations, found in deep oceans from the Arctic to the Antarctic, likely communicate in slightly different ways.

sperm whale
People walk past a mural of a whale created by artist Marcus Cuffi in Roseau, Dominica. The tiny island of Dominica announced in November 2023 that it is creating the world’s first marine protected area for one of the Earth’s largest animals – the endangered sperm whale [File: Clyde K Jno-Baptiste/AP Photo]


Sperm whales have the biggest brains of any animal on the planet – as much as six times the size of an average human brain. Living in matriarchal groups of about 10, they sometimes meet up with hundreds or thousands of other whales. They can grow up to 18 metres (60 feet) long and sleep vertically, in groups.

Hunted for centuries for the oil contained in their giant heads, the species is classified as “vulnerable” by the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Gruber said they seem to have sophisticated social ties and deciphering their communication systems could reveal parallels with human language and society.

But communication between humans and sperm whales is still some way off. “I think there’s a lot more research that we have to do before we know whether it’s a good idea to try to communicate with them, or really even to have a sense of whether that will be possible,” said study co-author Jacob Andreas.

Jeremy Goldbogen, associate professor of oceans at Stanford University in the United States, called the new research “extraordinary”, saying it had “vast implications for how we understand ocean giants”. That knowledge, he said, should also be used for conservation purposes, like minimizing the risk of the marine mammals being hit by ships or reducing ocean noise levels.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies