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“CALL ME ‘MOBY-DICK.’ ” Melville didn’t begin his novel with these words, but the latest cetacean research may suggest he should have. Divers are recording and videoing sperm whales as these mammals communicate by complex patterns of clicks. The goal is to investigate just who is talking to whom, and what about.
A sperm whale can grow to more than 65 ft. in length and weigh 110,000 lbs. They’re smaller than their baleen (filter-feeding toothless) cousins such as blue whales, the latter growing to 100 ft. in length and weighing nearly 400,000 lbs. Sperm whales are the largest of toothed cetaceans, with teeth measuring eight inches in length.
Like their smaller toothed relatives, porpoises and dolphins, sperm whales communicate though clicks, the frequency varying in complex patterns. These sounds can also be extremely loud. Clicks have been measured at around 230 decibels underwater, equivalent to 170 decibels on land. To put these in perspective, noise levels around Formula 1 circuits are around 134 decibels; this, with today’s “excessively quiet” turbo engines. They used to be 145 decibels.
“A Conversation With Whales,” by James Nestor, The New York Times, April 16, 2016, gives details of research performed by DareWin, a group studying sperm whales through free-diving. The article is replete with technical nuggets. [This link works fine on my PC; it seems not accessible on my iPhone.]
For example, the researchers free-dive to eliminate the sounds of conventional scuba gear, known to interfere with notoriously shy sperm whales. Free-diving, they found the whales to be “curious and welcomed the divers into the pods for hours, circling them and peppering them with communication clicks.”
Like several other mammals, bats among them, sperm whales use echolocation to identify things in their environment. Nestor observes, “the whales are snapping three-dimensional images.” But they also use what researchers call “coda clicks” to identify themselves to others in the pod, in a sense, to say hello.
Whales make these varied clicks with a pair of phonic lips, also known as museau de singe, monkey muzzle. In evolution from land-based ancestors, a sperm whale’s right nostril became its phonic lips; its left nostril, its blowhole. Air forced through the phonic lips is recycled so it’s not lost when submerged.
The researchers recorded sperm whale clicks, analyzed their sound spectra and found these to be complex indeed. Within the click patterns were series of shorter clicks, each lasting a few thousandths of a second.
Could these patterns be whale syllables, uttered in complex communication?
Sperm whales have the largest brains ever known, around six times the size of humans’. Nestor notes, “They have an oversize neocortex and a profusion of highly developed neurons called spindle cells that, in humans, govern things like emotional suffering, compassion and speech.” He quotes Fabrice Schnöller, French engineer and one of the DareWin founders, “We finally have the technology and methods to significantly increase our understanding of one of the planets most intelligent animals.”
And, perhaps, one of its most talkative. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016