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Young women are criticized for this vocal tic — but it helps whales survive

A new study in the journal Science finds many of the marine mammals vocalize in a strikingly similar way to humans

A sperm whale in the Caribbean Sea. (Reinhard Dirscherl/Getty Images)
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Kim Kardashian does it. So does Scarlett Johansson and Katy Perry.

And it turns out many whales also use “vocal fry,” the deep, gravelly vocal register these celebrities and a growing number of young American women have taken up.

Except the group of animals, which includes sperm whales, orcas, dolphins and porpoises, use “vocal fry” to help find their prey, according to the paper published Thursday. The study in the journal Science found the whales, like people, have at least three vocal registers: A normal voice, a falsetto and that creaky fry.

“The similarities we find are really striking,” said Coen Elemans, a voice scientist at the University of Southern Denmark who co-wrote the study. “This is the first evidence of broad register use in any animal, besides humans.”

Among Americans, vocal fry can be divisive. Some find the low, guttural voice to be grating. Others warn the raspy tone makes prospective employees less hirable. Radio stations get complaints about hosts who end their sentences with the scratchy voice.

But the ranks of vocal friers are growing, particularly among younger women. Many who speak with a creak view criticism of vocal fry as sexist social policing of women’s voices. And plenty of celebrities today — including Kardashian, Johansson and Perry — often talk in that gritty register, according to Elemans.

Among whales, the creaky voice is critical to the massive mammals’ survival.

How whales use their ‘voice’

Elemans and his colleagues found that toothed whales use the normal and falsetto registers to communicate with each other. They reserve the vocal fry register for navigation.

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Able to dive more than a mile underwater, many of these whales hunt in nearly complete darkness. The animals use sound to find their way underwater, sending out powerful pulses and listening to the echo to spot their meal.

Toothed whales rely on vocal fry to make their echolocation clicks, according to the study. Under the sea, air is precious — and whales likely evolved to use the lower register for echolocation since it uses air the most efficiently.

Vocal fry, according to Elemans, “has definitely brought toothed whales very far.”

His team’s series of experiments showed that whales produce their wide repertoire of sounds with the same organ — the phonic lips in their nose, which vibrate much like a larynx does in humans. To reach that conclusion, his team filmed tissue motion on trained bottlenose dolphins and harbor porpoises with a high-speed camera, and also taped wild whales with a small sound-recording tags.

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“They show, to some extent, that the physical mechanism is the same as the one we use,” said Andrea Ravignani, a comparative bioacoustician at Aarhus University in Denmark and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. He wrote an opinion article on whale vocalization in the same issue of Science.

He added, “The finding is quite unexpected and mind-blowing.”