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How sperm whales form clans through their different ‘dialects’

Researchers tracked whales for 30 years and ran the data compiled over decades into various computer models to figure out the most likely scenario for how whales learned different dialects. (Video: Mauricio Cantor / Whitehead Lab at Dalhousie University)

Sperm whales are big ol' chatterboxes, and the language they speak comes in distinct dialects. The animals likely learned these patterns of clicks, called "coda," from each other, and it allows them to organize themselves into clans, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

The authors write that their findings suggest "processes similar to those that generate complex human cultures" could also be at play in the organization of certain animal societies.

Lead author Mauricio Cantor of Dalhousie University's Whitehead Lab said researchers already knew that sperm whales have complex societal structures. Male sperm whales live solitary lives in cold waters, while females live in units, based in part on family ties, in warmer waters near the tropics.

Family units that use the same sounds for communication then form clans with each other. Five different sperm whale dialects can be found across the South Pacific, and the clans are actually not geographically segregated, meaning that whales speaking different dialects inhabit the same waters.

What scientists wanted to figure out was how these whales took on these sounds — was it genetic, by chance, or learned behavior?

So researchers ran whale data compiled since the 1980s in the Eastern Pacific Ocean -- mainly off the Galapagos Islands -- through computer models to figure out the most likely scenario for dialect and clan formation. They created virtual whale populations, adjusting only the ways they received their codas. What they found is that the whales needed to learn the dialects from each other "and also confirm to those whales that sound similar to them," Cantor said.

It's a kind of biased social learning. "You learn, but you have the biases ... learning from someone who is similar to you," Cantor said.

The concept of culture within animal societies is still hotly debated, Cantor said, with some defining it as being restricted only to humans. But if culture is viewed as a set of learned behaviors picked up from other individuals and shared with the group, "in that sense, other animals can have culture."

"If whales are learning their sound and sharing their sound with parts of the population, that's one line of evidence for whale culture," Cantor said. "But what we're not saying is whale culture is the same as the very complex, diverse and symbolic human culture."


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