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IT HAS LONG BEEN KNOWN that sperm whales make clicking sounds to communicate as well as to echolocate prey in ocean darkness at depths of a mile or more. Recently, researchers have identified clans of whales having dialects of clicks separating one from the other. What’s more, their use of these symbolic markings is similar to that in human cultures.
Details are given in “Evidence from Sperm Whale Clans of Symbolic Marking in Non-human Culture,” by Taylor A. Hersh, et at, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. September 8, 2022. The researchers observe, “Symbolic marking is a hallmark of human cultures, but quantitative evidence for nonhuman animal cultures is comparatively limited. We show evidence that certain acoustic communication signals—‘identity codas’—function as symbolic markers of cultural identity among Pacific Ocean sperm whale clans.”
The Sperm Whale. The sperm whale, Physter macrocephalus, is the largest toothed whale; males, as long as 60 ft. (The blue whale, Baleenoptera musculus, can approach 100 ft.)
Physter comes from the Greek physētēr (φυσητήρ), meaning ‘blowpipe, blowhole (of a whale). The specific name macrocephalus is Latinized from the Greek makroképhalos (μακροκέφαλος), ‘big-headed’).
In fact, the head of a sperm whale makes up as much as one-third of its body length. The organs above its jaw are devoted to sound generation.
Hunting in Darkness. The sperm whale is the world’s largest predator, feeding on sharks, giant squid, and other marine life particularly at great depths. As shown in this marvelous video from Museum of New Zealand, echolocation is an essential feature of this hunting in the darkness.
And this is only one use of the sperm whale’s clicks.
Marking Out Culture in Song. Tom Metcalfe writes “Sperm Whale ‘Clans’ in the Pacific Mark Out their Culture with Songs,” NBC News, September 19, 2022. Metcalfe says, “It’s the first time cultural markers have been observed among whales, and they mimic markers of cultural identity among human groups, like distinctive dialects or tattoos.”
Metcalfe continues, “The study analyzed more than 40 years of recordings of underwater sperm whale calls made at 23 locations across the Pacific Ocean, from Canada to New Zealand to Japan to South America. From these, the researchers extracted more than 23,000 click patterns, and then used an artificial intelligence system to determine which of them were distinctive identity codas.”
Identity Coda Use. The researchers found “highly remarkable similarities in the distribution of human ethnolinguistic groups and sperm whale clans.” This collaborated what Metcalfe notes was a well-known linguistic study several decades ago: Residents of Martha’s Vineyard, for example, were more likely to emphasize their distinctive island dialect when speaking among people who were not from the island.
The researchers said, “This matches expectations if sympatry is related to a measurable pressure to diversify to make cultural divisions sharper, thereby providing evidence that identity codas function as symbolic markers of clan identity.”
“You’re from away, right?” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022