May 26, 2024

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Building blocks of sperm whale language identified by scientists

Building blocks of sperm whale language identified by scientists

ROSEAU, Dominica (AP) — Scientists studying sperm whales that live around the Caribbean island of Dominica have described for the first time the basic elements of how they talk to each other, in an effort that could one day help better protect them. .

Like many whales and dolphins, sperm whales are highly social mammals They communicate by compressing air through their respiratory systems To make a series of rapid clicks that can sound like very loud zippers underwater. Clicks are also used as a form of echolocation to help them track their prey.

Scientists have been trying for decades to understand what those clicks might mean, and have made little progress. While they still don’t know it, they now believe there are groups of clicks that they believe form a “phonetic alphabet” that whales can use to construct the rough equivalent of what people think of as words and phrases.

“We are now beginning to find the first building blocks of whale language,” said David Gruber, founder and president of the Cetacean Society. Cetacean Translation Initiative Or CETI, an effort dedicated to translating sperm whale communication.

Light shines on a sperm whale as it swims off the coast of Dominica in March 2024. (Samuel Lam via AP)

in Stady The researchers, publishing Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, analyzed more than 8,700 excerpts of sperm whale clicks, known as codas. They say they have found four basic components that they believe make up this phonetic alphabet.

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This alphabet could then be used by whales in an unlimited number of combinations, said Pratyusha Sharma, the paper’s lead researcher.

“They don’t seem to have a fixed set of codes,” said Sharma, an artificial intelligence and computer science expert at MIT. “This gives whales access to a much larger communication system,” she said, explaining that it is as if whales have a very large dictionary.

Sperm whales have the largest brains of any animal on the planet at up to 20 pounds, six times the size of the average human brain. They live in matriarchal groups of about 10 individuals and occasionally meet hundreds or thousands of other whales. Sperm whales can grow up to 60 feet (18 m) in length and dive to approximately 3,280 feet (1,000 m) to hunt for squid. They sleep vertically, in groups.

Sperm whales appear to have sophisticated social bonds, and deciphering their communication systems could reveal similarities to human language and society, said Gruber, a professor of biology at the City University of New York.

A sperm whale and her calf swim off the coast of Dominica in March 2024. In a study published Tuesday, May 7, in the journal Nature Communications, scientists studying sperm whales that live around the Caribbean island describe for the first time basic characteristics related to how they talk to each other, in an effort that can... To one day help us protect them better.  (Samuel Lamm via AP)

A sperm whale and her calf swim off the coast of Dominica in March 2024. (Samuel Lam via AP)

To get enough examples of sperm whale clicks in Dominica, where the resident whale population is about 200, scientists set up a giant underwater recording studio equipped with microphones at different depths. Tags on whales also record the position they are in when they click – for example diving, sleeping, breathing at the surface – and whether there are any other whales nearby that they may come into contact with.

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Jeremy Goldbogen, assistant professor of oceans at Stanford University, called the new research “extraordinary,” saying it has “wide-ranging implications for how we understand ocean giants.”

If we can one day understand what sperm whales are saying, this knowledge should be used for conservation purposes, such as reducing the risk of them being struck by ships or reducing noise levels in the ocean, said Goldbogen, who was not involved in the study.

Sperm whales are classified as ” exhibition “By the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Whales have been hunted for centuries for the oil in their giant heads and the species is still recovering.

Associated Press reporter Jackie Quinn reports on artificial intelligence helping researchers decipher the basic elements of the alphabet used by sperm whales.

Diana Rees, an expert on marine mammal behavior and communication at the City University of New York, said scientists understand certain aspects of marine animal communication well, including Whistles Used by dolphins and Songs Sung by humpback whales.

But when it comes to sperm whales, even this basic knowledge is lacking.

“What’s new about this study is that they’re trying to look at the basis of the whales’ communication system… not just the specific calls they make,” she said.

Rees, who was not involved in the new research, said she hopes one day we can match whale clicks to their behavior.

“We will never understand what clicks mean to another whale, but we may be able to understand what clicks mean enough to predict its behavior,” she said. “This alone would be an amazing accomplishment,” she said.

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Gruber, the founder of CETI, said millions and perhaps billions of whale codes would be needed to collect enough data to try to figure out what the whales are saying, but he expects artificial intelligence to help speed up the analysis. He said that other groups of sperm whales — whales found in deep oceans from the Arctic to the Antarctic — likely communicate in slightly different ways.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.