Could Sperm Whales Have Individual Names?
Posted on March 16, 2011
Photo by NOAA
Researchers at Scotland’s University of St Andrews have discovered that sperm whales could just maybe have individual names for each other.
The study has been done on a small group of whales by following them by boat and listening in on their communication and by surprise the researchers discovered that the whales have different click patterns when the whales address each other through the water, which could be interpreted as unique names for each whale.
“In that study, they focused on a coda made only by Caribbean sperm whales. It appears to signify group membership. In the latest study, published Feb. 10 in Animal Behavior, they analyzed a coda made by sperm whales around the world. Called 5R, it’s composed of five consecutive clicks, and superficially appears to be identical in each whale. Analyzed closely, however, variations in click timing emerge. Each of the researchers’ whales had its own personal 5R riff.
The differences were significant. The sonic variations that were used to distinguish between individuals in the earlier study depended on a listener’s physical relationship to the caller: “If you record the animal from the side, you get a different structure than dead ahead or behind,” said Rendell. But these 5R variations held true regardless of listener position.
“In terms of information transfer, the timing of the clicks is much less susceptible” to interference, said Rendell. “There is no doubt in my mind that the animals can tell the difference between the timing of individuals.” Moreover, 5R tends to be made at the beginning of each coda string as if, like old-time telegraph operators clicking out a call sign, they were identifying themselves. Said Rendell, “It may function to let the animals know which individual is vocalizing.”
That individual whales would have means of identifying themselves does, however, make sense. Dolphins have already been shown to have individual, identifying whistles. Like them, sperm whales are highly social animals who maintain complex relationships over long distances, coordinating hunts and cooperating to raise one another’s calves.”
Read more over at Wired.