Sperm whales speak with regional accents

By Lucy Brake - 14 May 2011 9:11:0 GMT
Sperm whales speak with regional accents

Sperm whales communicate with each other using a pattern of clicks or 'codas' and it is well known that there is a pattern of a series of five clicks, which are evenly spaced apart, that is used by sperm whales all over the world.

It was previously thought that these codas were all very similar but a new study indicates that different sperm whales have different accents when using the same patterns, leading individual identities and communication within families.

Through the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, Scientists at the University of St. Andrew have recently confirmed that where a sperm whale comes from will influence the sound properties of their clicks. For example, Caribbean and Pacific whales have a different pattern which is similar to a regional dialect found in humans.

This discovery was made while scientists were investigating how much human-induced noise is polluting the oceans and impacting on whales.

Sperm whales can dive to incredible depths, over 1000 metres below the surface, and they rely on the ability to hear sound to navigate through the oceans. Co-authors of the report, Mr Gero and Dr Whitehead believe that this human noise pollution is the biggest threat to sperm whales.

Ever-increasing global shipping, military sonar and movements as well as the ongoing search for underwater oil fields is all adding to noise in the water that can actually inhibit the communications that are occurring between whales.

Mr Gero says that noise pollution in the ocean is a real problem and likens this to what it would be like for humans to live in a rock concert.

The Dominica Sperm Whale Project scientists are keen to use their research to trace how whale communities and communications actually change and develop over time. Sperm whales have complex social structures and are essentially nomadic creatures where the whole community revolves around the rearing of the young.

One of the areas being studied at the moment is how baby sperm whales acquire their dialect, essentially how the calves go from babbling to being able to communicate directly with their own family in a unique accent.