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Sperm Whales Have Distinct Languages, Culture, Oregon Coast Researcher Finds

Published 09/26/22 at 6:00 PM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Sperm Whales Have Distinct Languages, Culture, Oregon Coast Researcher Finds

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(Newport, Oregon) – Sperm whales off the Oregon coast and elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean have a unique way of communicating that identifies each other. These great leviathans can speak to one another and have a distinct culture, according to a team of scientists that included an Oregon State University researcher. (Photo courtesy Hatfield Marine Science Center)

There are vocalizations that sperm whales emit, a kind of language that is more akin to “identity codes,” and these help show the whales which clans they belong to. It's a remarkable find, showing that there are symbolic markers of different social groups and proving there is a form of culture shared among them.

The findings came from one Oregon coast researcher as well as numerous others from various nations. Mauricio Cantor, assistant professor in OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, is a co-author on the study, published last week in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

The Marine Mammal Institute operates out of the Hatfield Marine Science Center on the central Oregon coast.

Hatfield Marine Science Center (photo copyright Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

“They’re all kind of using the same language, but phrasing things slightly differently,” said Cantor. “As symbolic markers, the identity codas would serve as a flag: an arbitrary but useful way to advertise membership of a particular group.”

These vocalizations are described as sequences of Morse code-like clicking sounds that are varied and differ between clans. Cantor likened them to the wearing of football jerseys: they show which fans are from which fanbase, especially useful if no one knows you.

Cantor said the codas show a whale culture that is learned and passed down through generations. Calves are not born with the knowledge, but eventually learn by emulating adults in their clan. They are consistent form of language as well, having stayed the same over time. Recordings were made starting in 1978 in a wide range across the Pacific, from Tonga and Japan down to South America.

“The bigger picture here is this gigantic gap that we perceive (or insist on perceiving) between humans and everything else on Earth,” Cantor said. “One of the main things that used to separate us is the ability for humans to have culture. This notion is slowly being eroded over time with studies showing that animals do learn, and they pass that information on, which can become little traditions that are stable over time.”

During the research, teams were able to discover one new clan among the whale population, and they learned more about two rather unknown groups. It raised the number from four known clans to seven wandering the regions off the Oregon coast, Washington coast, Russia, Japan and South America.

Also an interesting find: whale clans that were more isolated and interacted less with other clans used the clicking languages less. Those bumping into others more often used the codas more.

Sperm whales inhabit all the oceans of the world, but along the Oregon coast and Washington coast they are more often seen from March through November. They are not seen from land often, however, because they normally wander deeper areas, mostly spotted by boats a ways out.

Not much is known about the sperm whale population, but it is estimated there are some 2,000 living off the west coast, including California through the Oregon and Washington coastlines. MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Photos above courtesy Hatfield Marine Science Center, taken in Galapagos

Hatfield photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection

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