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You’re Squeaking My Language

Sperm whale clans speak their own unique “dialects”

Author Nicholas DeRenzo

fact“Call me Ishmael”—but make sure you’re using the right accent. According to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications by Dalhousie University Ph.D. candidate Mauricio Cantor and biology professor Hal Whitehead, clans of sperm whales (like Melville’s famous Moby Dick) actually communicate with their own unique “dialects.” In other words, depending on the specific group to which a whale belongs, it will “speak” with a pattern of clicks (or “codas”) slightly different from that of other clans. After studying two clans of whales near the Galápagos Islands and then examining 18 years of data, the scientists discovered that the region is home to at least five unique dialects. Rather than being inherited, these specific click patterns are learned socially and passed down from generation to generation—allowing like-minded individuals to communicate, cooperate, and form deeper bonds. The takeaway? Like humans, chimpanzees, and some species of bird, sperm whales may actually exhibit signs of complex culture. 

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