The Whales Speak

The reason I was first interested in studying marine biology at university, a few years ago now, was to try to understand the link between cetacean intelligence and communication…I find these animals the most fascinating of all, and the chance to write about them and their incredible “speech” presented itself in the form of Bloom in Doom magazine – you can read the article and many more on their site here: https://www.bloomindoom.com/environment/the-whales-speak

Whales communicate with one another through songs that consist of repeatable and predictable noises. This can be visualised using a song spectrogram, with the song-lines resembling musical notes. Illustration by Alicia Hayden.

Whales communicate with one another through songs that consist of repeatable and predictable noises. This can be visualised using a song spectrogram, with the song-lines resembling musical notes. Illustration by Alicia Hayden.

The group of animals that, in my opinion,  have shown intense levels of both stereotypical and different levels of intelligence, and the reason I chose to study marine biology at university, are the Cetaceans. Cetaceans include the toothed whales (dolphins, porpoises, sperm whales, etc.) and the baleen or filterfeeding whales (humpback whales, blue whales, etc.), and are a diverse and incredible group of animals. 

Communication is the ability to make another understand what you’re thinking, or at least convey a message, and is one that requires different levels of intelligence. Everything communicates. There is usually one form or another of making a message be heard and understood by another. For example, ants are the masters of communicating with their bodies – an antenna twitch, a leg movement or an abdomen wriggle can mean multiple things. They use these, along with pheromones to communicate. Bees are known to use dance to show other bees where they have found food or to suggest danger. Meerkats use barking, birds call and use bright colours, chameleons change colour – there are many ways that animals communicate.

Humans use language –  crafted, structured and varied. We have multiple words for different things, we have different words for the same thing. It’s the pinnacle of intelligent communication…according to its users. But we, the so-called masters of language, are not alone. There are other animals that share this feature; the Cetaceans.

Whales communicate with one another through songs that consist of repeatable and predictable noises. This can be visualised using a song spectrogram, with the song-lines resembling musical notes. Illustration by Alicia Hayden.
Whales communicate with one another through songs that consist of repeatable and predictable noises. This can be visualised using a song spectrogram, with the song-lines resembling musical notes. Illustration by Alicia Hayden.

Cetaceans actually use a variety of clicks, whistles, movement and chemicals, to communicate, which sounds a lot like what we do, but it has its own fascinating journey.

Cetaceans, like us, are highly social individuals; most will often travel in groups called ‘pods’, and are rarely seen on their own. They, therefore, require communication to survive, as without it they would find life extremely hard. Working together is essential for hunting, raising young and protection. It also comes down to their environment. Cetaceans are fully aquatic animals, and water is a better transmitter of sound than air. Cetaceans, like most underwater animals, have highly developed acoustic capabilities. These capabilities can manifest as non-vocal or vocal behaviours. Whilst the non-vocal behaviours are indeed important in communicating, it’s the vocal behaviours which astounded me.

There are different vocal communication which are practised by the different types of Cetaceans; the Toothed whales and Baleen whales. Baleen, or filter feeding Whales spend long periods of time searching for minute organisms to “filter” from the water. There’s a massive variety of vocalisations they use, such as the famous “Whale Song”, and most are used to communicate socially. They have long distance songs, songs to threaten others or identify themselves, songs for mates, and greeting songs.

These songs have different frequencies- low frequency moans (20-200Hz) can go on for at least 30 seconds and are used for long distance messages. It has been suggested that if they weren’t interrupted by barriers like ships and land, these calls could travel the entire distance of the globe. There are short-frequency “thumps and knocks”, that last 1 or 2 seconds and are used to get attention from the rest of the pod. The rhythms of these songs have been compared to human music, in particular that of veteran composers, in terms of their beauty, intricacy and complex structure.

For the toothed whales there are clicks, pulses and echolocation, mostly associated with dolphins. They are quite playful animals –  highly energetic and powerful.

It is in the toothed whales we come across dialects. Dialect refers to the difference in a language according to where they are from. Some scientists have actually suggested that dialects are used to stop inbreeding, as dolphins will recognise their own group by their dialect, as opposed to other groups, who’s dialect may differ. But it is also shown as a way of groups maintaining bonds and increasing family ties, almost akin to human society.

There are currently  only 2 cetacean species with dialects that have been described or studied; Sperm Whales and famous Killer Whales (Orcas). These two species of whales are linked by characteristics of their “societies”; the matrilineal group structure, meaning that they are all linked by maternal descent, and they also live in stable, structured, multilevel societies. These animals have hierarchy with levels of social identity – social units (individuals grouped together as “friends” or “allies”) , vocal clans (groups of individuals that communicate with one another using the same language or calls) and individuals. The only other places this level of societal structure has been shown is in us humans, our friends the elephants, and primates.

Dialects have been shown to be part of the “culture” of dolphins and marine mammals, and are passed down through being taught and via genetics in some cases. Cetaceans are highly sophisticated, intelligent animals, and we are only just beginning to understand their language structure, let alone the usage of most of these terms and interpretations. They are complex and have qualities we can relate to but also qualities we don’t yet understand. 

We are surrounded by intelligent life, and the evidence is all here, in these beautiful, extraordinary creatures. 

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