Researchers: sperm whale clans have own dialects

Sperm whale clans learn to 'speak' in their own dialects, according to researchers. These dialects must be learned by the whales; they're not innate, and consist of what is describe as "subtle" clicking sounds (codas). The researchers' findings were published yesterday in the journal Nature Communications. One of the researchers, Mauricio Cantor, said in a statement to BBC, "These codas sound like Morse code – patterns of three to twelve or fifteen clicks that vary in rhythm and tempo."

Dalhousie University in Canada led the study, and looked at sperm whale clans located off the Galapagos Islands. Two clans in particular were found to have distinct "dialects" of clicking. Cantor went on to explain what these different dialects between the two clans sound like:

In one clan we call the 'regular clan', we heard regularly spaced clicks, but in another vocal clan that we call the 'plus-ones', the coda types they make have an extended pause at the end before the last click.

Sperm whale clans are groupings of whales that are all part of the same social collective; creatures within each clan speak that collective's own coda dialect. According to the researchers, these clans are separated by more than just language — they also live different lives, doing everything from caring for young and moving about differently than other clans. Perhaps for this reason, two different clans don't interact with each other.

Most fascinatingly, it appears the codas develop not from genetics or geographical regions, but due to learning via association with other whales within the clan. Among other things, these codas appear to help with social bonding.