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New Discovery: Sperm Whales Use a ‘Phonetic Alphabet’

Researchers used AI to discern patterns in recordings of the marine mammals’ vocalizations, uncovering the “building blocks of whale language”.

Sperm whales are highly social creatures that roam the world’s oceans together, and as they travel, these massive creatures of the deep communicate by making a series of rapid clicks that sound like a combination of “Morse code and popcorn popping,” reports NPR.

Mother and baby sperm whale swimming together
Mother and baby sperm whale.

Now, with help from artificial intelligence, scientists are starting to decode some of the mysteries surrounding the sperm whale communication system. They found a plethora of sounds they’ve termed a “sperm whale phonetic alphabet,” raising the possibility that the mammals have their own language, just like humans.

According to the research published in the journal Nature Communications, sperm whales rattle off a series of rapid-fire clicks that researchers have named “codas.” Each coda consists of between three and 40 clicks. In addition to changing the number of clicks they make in quick succession, whales often speed up or slow down the tempo of each coda - researchers call this “rubato.” Sometimes, they add an extra “click” at the end of a coda, which scientists call “ornamentation.”

These codas could add up to something akin to syllables, words or even sentences. “We’re now starting to find the first building blocks of whale language,” study co-author David Gruber told the Associated Press.

Now that they have the sperm whale phonetic alphabet, researchers can proceed with figuring out how its different components fit together - and, possibly, what it all means. Wouldn't that be remarkable?

Better yet, if we knew what sperm whales were saying, we may be able to come up with more targeted approaches to protecting them. In addition, drawing parallels between whales and humans via language might help engage the broader public in conservation efforts.

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