Learning the “Whalephabet” | God's World News

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Learning the “Whalephabet”
News Shorts
Posted: May 10, 2024
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    Light shines on a sperm whale swimming off the coast of Dominica in March 2024. (Samuel Lam via AP)
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    A sperm whale and her calf off the coast of Dominica (Samuel Lam via AP)
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    Most sperm whales live together in groups. (Samuel Lam via AP)
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We know sperm whales communicate with each other. But how does their “language” work? Scientists study the sperm whales that live around the Caribbean island of Dominica. For the first time, researchers think they can describe how the mysterious whale talk is put together.

Like many whales and dolphins, sperm whales are highly social mammals. They communicate by squeezing air through their respiratory systems. Click, click, click, click! Their “words” sound like an extremely loud zipper underwater. The whales also use the clicks as a form of echolocation. The sound bounces off objects around them. This helps them track their prey.

Scientists have been trying for decades to understand what those clicks might mean. They now think sets of clicks make up a “phonetic alphabet.” Obviously, whales can’t write. But a phonetic alphabet is about sounds. Scientists think whales string together certain clicks to “spell” what we might think of as words and phrases.

“We’re now starting to find the first building blocks of whale language,” says David Gruber. He’s the president of the Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI).

Researchers studied more than 8,700 bits of sperm whale clicks, known as codas. They found four basic pieces they think make up this phonetic alphabet.

The alphabet could be used by the whales in lots of combinations. It’s as if the whales have a very large dictionary of “words” to use.

And maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. While they aren’t like humans, God gave these creatures more intelligence than many other animals. They seem able to learn new things instead of only following instinct. And they have the biggest brains of any animal on the planet! A sperm whale brain can weigh up to 20 pounds. That’s as much as six times the size of an average human brain.

We may never understand what the clicks mean to another whale. But we may be able to understand them enough to guess how whales will behave.

To figure out what whales are saying, scientists will have to collect millions and possibly billions of whale codas. Mr. Gruber expects AI (artificial intelligence) to help make the work go faster.

Praise the Lord from the Earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps. — Psalm 148:7