Whales communicate primarily through complex sounds
There’s no doubt that whales are highly intelligent creatures that regularly communicate with one another
Whales communicate primarily through complex sounds, including clicks, chirps, whistles, and intricate songs.
Whales do not have vocal cords.
They produce sound by squeezing air through the larynx or complex systems of air sacs and specialized soft tissues.
Whales can also produce sound by slapping parts of their body, such as flukes and tails, against the water’s surface.
There’s good evidence to suggest that whales and dolphins can identify one another based on the sounds they make.
There are about 90 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, known collectively as “cetaceans”.
Cetaceans can emit and hear sounds in a much wider range of frequencies than we humans can.
For example, dolphins utilize clicks at frequencies as high as 110 kHz.
The average human, by comparison, cannot hear sounds above 20 kHz.
Humpback whales produce songs that last several hours.
Blue whales and fin whales produce low-frequency sounds that can travel 2,000 miles (3,200 km) or more.
Sperm whales produce the loudest sounds of any animal; up to 230 decibels.
Toothed whales and dolphins, such as sperm whales and killer whales, have particularly large and complex brains.
Researchers believe that the complex intelligence of toothed whales has evolved over millions of years because of the complex social life and highly communicative lifestyle of these predators.
listen to the whale moan:
How do Whales Communicate Underwater?
Sound travels 4.5 – 5 times faster through water than through the air.
Whales and dolphins have evolved to communicate primarily via sound and live largely in an acoustic environment.
Whales don’t have vocal cords, but they can still produce an amazing range of sounds, far beyond the range of frequencies that humans can hear.
Dolphins can make sounds that reach frequencies as high as 110 kHz, while our hearing is limited to 20 kHz.
Cetaceans have a different physiology for producing sound, compared to the way we humans produce sound.
Instead of vocal cords, whales produce sounds by squeezing air through their larynx as well as through complex systems of air sacs near the blowhole.
The air sacs are used to produce the high-frequency sounds used in echolocation.
Echolocation pulses sound like a series of rapid clicks to a human ear because we can only hear some of the frequencies in the pulsed sounds.
The sperm whale uses the nasal passages in its massive nose to squeeze air through two fleshy ‘lips’ called “monkey lips” at the front of its nose just below the blowhole.
Using the lips, it can make loud clicks that are amplified in the oil-filled spermaceti organ.
The whale shoots the clicks out through the nose in highly directional sound beams that they can aim, like we aim a flashlight in the dark.
The clicks are so loud, that sperm whales can hear one another hundreds, perhaps even thousands of miles away.
Let’s listen to the whales talk:
How Loud are Whale Sounds? Can a Whale Click Kill You?
Sperm whales are so loud that the clicks could potentially kill a human within close range of a few feet.
Sperm whales are the loudest mammals on the planet, with clicks that can reach a mind-blowing 230 decibels. In comparison,
a jet engine produces about 140 decibels when measured 100 feet away.
Your eardrums would burst at around 150 decibels, and the threshold for death is estimated to be in the range of 185 to 200 dB.
James Nestor, an avid ocean adventurer, author, and speaker, relates the experience of swimming alongside a pod of sperm whales and feeling the clicks vibrate inside his body.
“These clicks are so powerful in the water that they can blow out your eardrums easily, and they can vibrate a human body to death,” he said.
Loud sounds carry even more punch when traveling through the water since the water is much denser than air.
Sperm whale clicks are far more amplified in the ocean than they would be on land. A sperm whale’s click of 200+ dB in the water would ‘only’ be 174 dB in the air.
Considering that sperm whale clicks are loud enough to rupture a person’s eardrums,
close contact with these creatures doesn’t sound like a great idea. But that won’t deter scientists with a passion!
How do Whales Use Echolocation?
Most of the toothed whales use sound to find their prey, often in the pitch black of the deep ocean.
This ability is called “echolocation” because the animals can find things in the water by listening to the echo that comes back.
Sounds used for echolocation are made in air sacs connected to the respiratory system and sent through fatty deposits in the forehead (called the “melon”).
The sounds are sent out in pulses, so when the echo from each pulse comes back, the animal can compare it to the pulses that were sent out.
The difference between the two gives the animal information about how far away something is, how big it is, what shape it has, and even what it is made of.
These cetaceans can receive even the faintest of echoes as the sound waves bounce off objects,
plants and animals and return to the originator of the clicks.
According to the Smithsonian Museum, sperm whales can use echolocation to detect a small squid less than a foot long more than a mile away,
and schools of squid from even farther away.
Animals that use echolocation for hunting,
such as the sperm whale, will often increase the speed of the clicks to achieve higher resolution and a more detailed ‘picture’ of its prey as they get closer.
Just before the prey is captured, the clicks blur together, reminding us of the sound of a “creaking” door.
Here’s an excellent video from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa showing how Sperm whales use echolocation to hunt giant squid.
We can see how the whale uses echolocation like an acoustic flashlight.
What is Echolocation?
Echolocation is an extremely important tool in the toothed whale’s survival as it allows these marine mammals to navigate the ocean at night,
locate potential prey and identify threats in the area using sound.
Echolocation is a biological sonar that whales use to determine their distance from nearby objects.
Because vision is extremely limited underwater and sound plays a much stronger and more favorable role in their lives echolocation is one
of the primary senses whales, dolphins, and porpoises rely on every day.
Echolocation works by creating high-pitched sounds,
clicks or echos and measuring the time it takes for the sound to bounce off of nearby objects and back to the host’s location.
In other words, whales measure how far an object is by how long it takes for the sound to get back to them.
The echo that returns provides these marine mammals with vital information such as the location of objects in their area, the density, direction, size, and movement of potential prey/predators, and whether or not the object is alive and mobile or simply an inanimate fixed object.
Echolocation is used largely among the toothed whale species and was previously thought to be absent among the baleen whale suborder.
It wasn’t until recently that researchers started exploring the possibility of baleen whales having this capability due to interesting data suggesting that these marine mammals
(at least some baleen whales) also, use echolocation to navigate the ocean.
How do Whales and Dolphins Hear?
Whales and dolphins don’t have external ears. They use their jawbones for hearing.
Whales and dolphins have ears, but their ear canals do not open to the outside. They don’t have external ears that stick out as ours do.
Whales and dolphins generally hear sounds through unique structures in their jawbones, with fatty lobes near the jaw being connected to the inner ear.
Once the vibrations reach the inner ear, neural impulses are sent to the brain.
Reminds me of a kid’s ditty: jawbone connected to the earbone, earbone connected to the nervous system, the nervous system connected to the brain…
Can Whales and Dolphins Identify One Another by Sound?
Yes, there’s good evidence to suggest that whales and dolphins can identify one another based on the sounds they make.
Take the bottlenose dolphin, for example. Scientists have found that each bottlenose dolphin develops its distinctive signature whistle (Tyack, 2000).
Each unique whistle appears to serve as a means of individual identification.
Just as we refer to one another by name, each dolphin identifies itself by using its unique whistle and copying the whistles of other individuals,
as if calling them by name. Dolphins will often whistle to another dolphin, with the other dolphin moving toward the whistler
. Dolphins also whistle when separated from their family group.
If they become separated, a young calf and its mother will whistle repeatedly until reunited.
Dolphins are the only animals other than humans that have been shown to transmit identity information independent of the caller’s voice or location (Janik 2006).
Not only do these dolphins call each other by name, but they can also remember the whistles of other dolphins after 20 years of separation.
Research from the University of Chicago shows that dolphins have the longest memory of any species other than humans (that we know about).
How do Whales Communicate Over Long Distances?
The large baleen whales, like blue whales and fin whales, produce very low-frequency sounds that can travel through the ocean for thousands of miles.
In some species, notably the humpback whale, males can repeat long, complicated songs.
The standard hypothesis is that these songs appear to play a role in reproduction, by helping to attract mates and by sending signals to potential rivals.
The latest science, however, is not so clear cut.
Some scientists, Dr. John Hildebrand, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Dr. Jim Darling, Whale Trust,
for example, postulate that whales sing to convince other whales that they have certain characteristics that they want to project.
In other words, the power of the sound isn’t about propagating long distances as much as it’s about projecting a particular profile to other whales, which might
include demonstrating a male’s dominance or fitness to mate.
It is a whale’s song:
Can Whales Communicate Visually?
Whales can communicate visually in ways that we don’t fully understand. Take the killer whale (Orcinus orca)
, for example. There are certain clans of orca known as transients that specialize in hunting marine mammals, including seals, sea lions, and other whales. In marked contrast to the hunting style of most toothed whales that hunt using echolocation,
including clans of fish-eating orcas, the transient orcas have developed the ability to hunt cooperatively in silence.
Silent hunting allows these killer whales to sneak up and ambush their prey,
but it also means that they must be using visual signals to coordinate the hunt.
Since whales and dolphins live in an acoustic environment with greater dependence on sound processing,
this is reflected in the structure of the brain.
In a cetacean brain the neural area devoted to visual imaging is only about one-tenth the comparative size of that in the human brain.
Conversely, the area of the brain devoted to acoustical imaging is about 10 times as large.
Communicating through body language
In addition to using sound and echolocation to communicate with others and navigate the ocean whales also use physical gestures and body language to share their experiences and interests with other whales.
Through the use of these gestures, whales can show compassion, nurture, dominance, and curiosity among other things.
Whale surfacing behavior
Whales use a combination of different surfacing behaviors such as Spyhopping,
obtaining, and breaching, and are believed to display this type of behavior to show dominance, communicate a desire to mate, and warn other whales of nearby dangers.
It occurs when a whale surfaces partly above the surface of the water for an extended amount of time fully exposing its head
and generally keeping its eyes slightly above or below the water so that it can observe its surroundings.
It is believed to be used to watch for predators and keep the whale alert to its surroundings.
Lobtailing is when a whale or dolphin lifts its flukes or flippers out of the water and slapthemit hard against the water creating a loud slapping noise.
This slapping may be used to show aggression, warn nearby whales of danger, and/or communicate with other whales.
Dolphins have also been trained by humans to lobtail as a form of communication and to indicate a need or desire, such as to request food from a trainer or as a playful gesture.
Breaching occurs when a whale lunges itself out of the water exposing at least 40% of its entire body above the water.
It has also been observed as a form of social interaction and can be used to display aggression,
warn others of nearby danger, or during courtship to display fitness and a desire to mate.
Due to the large size and weight of the whale breaching causes large disturbances in the water which makes actions unmistakable to other whales in the ocean that are either above or beneath the water and can be used as an effective signaling method to communicate to other whales.
Charging occurs when one whale charges or lunges at another whale into their attention.
It may be used to show dominance or territorial behavior or it may be used as a form of challenge or play between whales.
Light physical contact/nurturing touches
Whales have been observed lightly rubbing against or bumping other whales in their pod.
These light physical gestures are believed to be a form of nurture or intimacy among whales and can sometimes be seen when a mother is caring for her young or when two adult whales are performing a mating ritual.
Whales Have Had Sophisticated Communication for Millions of Years
The largest brains that ever evolved on earth belong to whales.
Whales evolved big brains about 20 million years ago,
many millions of years before early humans developed big brains (only about 1 million years ago). What are some of the implications?
Whales and primates both show dramatic growth in the same two regions of the brain: the cerebellum and neocortex
. Both regions are important for the higher cognitive functions involved in communication.
In 2006, scientists at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine reported that “sperm whales, killer whales, and certainly humpback whales exhibit complex social patterns that include intricate communication skills, coalition formation, cooperation, cultural transmission, and tool usage.”
They noted that it is “likely that some of these abilities” are related to the comparable complexity of the brain structures possessed by both whales and hominids.
After analyzing the brains of both toothed and baleen whales, the Mount Sinai researchers found concentrations of spindle cells associated with higher cognitive functions.
In humans, these types of brain cells are involved with self-awareness, a sense of compassion, and the e of language.
One of the amazing things is that whales evolved these highly specialized neurons millions of years before we humans did!
This is a good example of parallel evolution,
whereby physical traits that perform a similar function evolve independently in different species.
Do Whales Develop Different Dialects?
Whales can develop various dialects much like humans.
Take killer whales, for example.
We’ve learned that there are cultural differences among killer whales based on their vocalizations.
There are four clans of “resident” orcas in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington State, each consisting of several pods.
Even though the clans can share the same waters, their vocalizations are as different as English and Greek.
And each pod has a dialect of its own, akin to the differences between the English spoken in Scotland vs Canada.
One use of dialects among the orcas is to avoid inbreeding.
The males seek mates outside of their pods, based largely on the differences in vocalization.
Hal Whitehead, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia has been tracking and recording sperm whales around the globe since the early 1980s.
He has positively identified five distinct clan dialects that use different codes
Codas are “Morse code-like patterns clicks” that the whales use to communicate with one another.
Do Whales Have Unique Cultural Groups?
According to biologists, behavior is what you do, culture is how you do it.
All whales do the same things, such as communicating, swimming, feeding, defending themselves, and even babysitting.
But how they do these things varies, even within the same species.
We, humans, have different ways of eating – forks or chopsticks for example – and widely different food preferences.
Whales have similar cultural differences in terms of what they eat, how fast they travel, how far they roam, and much more.
Let’s consider sperm whales.
They live in elaborately structured clans which are large groups of thousands of individuals spread over many thousands of miles of ocean.
Within each clan, there are smaller family units or pods. Young whales are raised within the pod by a network of female caregivers, including the mother, aunts, and grandmothers.
Sperm whales have a matriarchal society, and it is the females that pass along important lessons in communication,
as well as hunting techniques, food sources, etc.
“It’s like they’re living in these massive, multicultural, undersea societies,” says Hal Whitehead, the world’s foremost expert on sperm whales. “Really the closest analogy we have for it would be ourselves.”
Can Whales and Dolphins Communicate with Humans?
Dolphins can learn human sign language and can use whistles for communicating with humans.
Research conducted at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii on bottlenose dolphins,
showed that they could learn to understand individual words and basic sentences.
Akeakamai, a female bottlenose dolphin, could carry out tasks in response to a sentence such as, “touch the frisbee with your tail and then jump over it” (Herman, Richards, & Wolz 1984).
This research shows that dolphins can learn sign language and understand the significance of the order of tasks in a sentence.
Akeakamai was involved in many successful scientific studies of dolphin cognition, language acquisition, and sensory abilities.
Do Whales and Dolphins have Their Languages?
We don’t know if whales and dolphins are using what we might call language.
The sheer complexity and abundance of the various sounds they make, do, however, make one wonder. What if…?!
Scientists have determined that whales can make “human-like” use of hierarchical syntax to communicate.
In studying humpback whale songs, though, they’ve concluded that the sounds convey less than one bit of information per second.
By comparison, humans speaking English generate 10 bits of information for each word spoken.
But what if the human word is a poor comparison when it comes to whale communication?
Some people believe that the coda that whales and dolphins use is more akin to data transmission,
such as fax machines than they are to human language.
According to James Nestor, data is a much more evolved way of communicating,
which is why modern communications are digital, such as cell phones and the internet.
Researchers have measured 1,600 micro clicks in a single second of sound being sent by one sperm whale to another.
And they can repeat the exact pattern of micro clicks with great precision. Nestor believes this is a very deliberate signal.
He believes that the sperm whale clicks represent encoded packs of information that are much more refined than the words we use in human language,
which he considers “really clunky.”
“If I mispronounce something just slightly, you don’t understand me. Transmission of data is much more precise.”
Nestor says, “If you’re diving with these animals, they’ll sit there in a circle and crane their heads in just the right way to shoot clicks to one another with a clear signal.
It’s a pretty mind-blowing experience to be in the middle of. To see them conversing.
There’s something so powerful there.”
Listen to two whales talking:
Herman, L. M., Richards, D. G., & Wolz, J. P. (1984). Comprehension of sentences by bottlenosed dolphins. Cognition, 16(2), 129–219. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0277(84)90003-9
Janik VM, Sayigh LS, Wells RS. The signature whistle shape conveys identity information to bottlenose dolphins. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 May 23;103(21):8293-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0509918103. Epub 2006 May 12. PMID: 16698937; PMCID: PMC1472465.
Nestor, James. Cetacean Echolocation Translation Initiative, CETI.
Independentgeare research project focused on studying and attempting to comprehend sperm whale clicks.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Bigger Brains: Complex Brains for a Complex World https://humanorigins.si.edu/human-characteristics/brains
Tyack, Peter L., 2000, Dolphins Whistle a Signature Tune, Science, Vol. 289(584), 2000
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