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Researchers Believe Some Whales Have Speech Dialects

by Holly Chavez Blog

Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Arctic

Highlights: Whale safari, Sperm Whale

Researchers Believe Some Whales Have Speech Dialects

There are an estimated 6,900 human languages, and linguists have discovered as many as 500 different dialects per language. This can be observed easily in countries such as the U.S. where dialects, also known as accents, are extremely different from region to region. None of this is news to anyone who has traveled or even watched a movie, but there is an exciting new discovery that relates to sperm whales: they appear to have dialects as well.

How Do Whales Use Dialects to Communicate?

From 1985 to 2003, researchers tracked a variety of whales in different areas. Part of this tracking process involved recording whale songs and other methods of communication. Although it has taken more than a decade to analyze every piece of data, we now know that some whales in different areas appear to adapt their language for cultural and location based reasons. In other words, the same whale species found in two areas of the world will have adopted two unique dialects due to the geographic region that each specific whale calls home.

Dialects most notably found within sperm whales

These dialects were most notably found within sperm whales, and they stood out within clicks, or codas, that are similar to Morse code. The codas include patterns ranging from 12 to 15 clicks, and the tempo and rhythm of these sounds changed by region. Interestingly, though, the crossover of the long range of each sperm whale makes it virtually certain that every clan has the opportunity to become exposed to the dialects outside of their grouping. This means that every unique dialect is a learned behavior that has most likely been developed as a distinguishing factor.

Whale Clans Child Care and Social Matters

Before the dialects were observed, researchers were already aware that sperm whale clans develop specific methods of dealing with everything from child care to socialization. This is another intriguing similarity between humans and whales. After all, child care is very different from nation to nation, with some areas focusing strongly on breastfeeding and the community approach, while others rely on baby formula and keep care within each specific family unit.

What we can learn from all of this is that these whales have just as complex of a social and language structure as humans. This brings up many additional questions about the potential for mores within each whale clan. It should also be noted that scientists believe whales reserve most of their speech patterns for social interaction, as opposed to turning to their songs and clicks primarily for hunting and survival.

It is fascinating to consider the possibility that each sperm whale clan’s dialect was created out of a need to discuss social matters. This can again be compared to different methods of speaking that are used by humans from region to region. Language has developed as a natural way of discussing everything from the weather to complex emotions, and there is no reason to believe that whales have not done the same thing. In fact, there is mounting evidence that Humpback and Orca whales may have developed communication methods that are similar to sperm whales. 

Additionally, the various dialects help keep the information that is being shared between each clan’s sperm whales safer than if every whale of this species used the exact same language. Again, whales have a lot of territory crossover, so they have been exposed to multiple dialects. What other primary purpose would there be for adhering to different dialects than to weed out the potential for others to listen in?

Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from this research is that sperm whales have yet another major factor in common with humans. We might not understand exactly what they are saying, but it is becoming increasingly clear that whales are even more like us than most people have ever imagined.

Want to learn more about whales?

Our whale watching trips are specially designed to be able to search for the gentle giants of the seas. You can select from either our Arctic cruises or our Antarctic expeditions for the chance to get in some serious whale-spotting. Connecting with whales is truly a special experience, one even our seasoned crew members never grow tired of.

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