Researchers Studying Sperm Whale Communication Discover That The Animals Have A Complex ‘Phonetic Alphabet’

Published May 14, 2024
Updated May 15, 2024

After analyzing over 9,000 recordings of sperm whale noises, researchers from Project CETI believe that they've discovered the "building blocks of whale language."

Sperm Whale Alphabet GmbH & Co. KG / Alamy Stock PhotoA sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) swimming off the coast of Portugal.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently teamed up with Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), a non-profit research effort, to decode the complex language of sperm whales.

Marine biologists have long known that sperm whales communicate with each other through a series of clicks and popping sounds. This recent project set out to record those noises and analyze them using artificial intelligence.

Now, scientists believe that they have identified a complex sperm whale “phonetic alphabet” that may bear striking similarities to human language.

Decoding The Complex Language Of Sperm Whales

Between 2005 and 2018, researchers captured 9,000 audio recordings from a pod of 400 sperm whales in the Eastern Caribbean. Now, they’ve analyzed those recordings using artificial intelligence, publishing their results in the journal Nature Communications.

Computer algorithms quickly picked up a pattern in the rapid clicking noises the whales made. Scientists dubbed these sequences of sounds “codas,” with each coda containing between three and 40 clicks. Some codas also had different tempos, which the researchers called “rubato.” In addition, the whales sometimes added an extra click, called “ornamentation,” to the end of a coda.

In total, the researchers identified 156 distinct codas making up a “phonetic alphabet” that sperm whales seemingly use to communicate with each other. They also found that the patterns of codas changed depending on the context of the conversation.

“They can be predicted by machine learning in the same way you might predict the sequence of syllables or the sequence of words in a sentence,” Daniela Rus, the director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, told NPR. “It really turned out that sperm whale communication was indeed not random or simplistic, but rather structured.”

Researchers noted that sperm whales often communicate for hours and oftentimes speak over each other.

“It’s hard not to see cousins playing while chatting,” biologist Shane Gero, who also works on Project CETI, told NPR. “To not see moms hand over to a babysitter and exchange a few words before walking out the door, so to speak, to go eat in the deep ocean.”

The Promises Of Future Research Into Sperm Whale Communication

Despite the monumental achievement of recording and organizing the “building blocks of whale language,” researchers are still very far from determining what exactly the sperm whales are saying.

It is possible that the codas do not convey information at all but rather seek to evoke certain emotions, similar to music.

However, scientists can now try to play back certain codas and record sperm whales’ reactions. Additionally, researchers are hoping to track similarities between behavior and speech to connect the two together.

Pod Of Sperm Whales

Will Falcon/Wikimedia CommonsA pod of sperm whales socializing near the Azores.

For example, if a sperm whale mother consistently produces the same sounds when handing off her baby to another whale so she can hunt, researchers can safely assume that the communication expresses something along the lines of: “Can you watch my child?” Of course, this only works if sperm whale language follows the structure of human language.

“I think there is value in seeing if patterns in animal communication mirror patterns in human language,” Taylor Hersh, a postdoctoral researcher at the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, told NPR. “But I think it’s important to remember, just because we don’t find evidence of something, it doesn’t mean that system isn’t complex in ways we don’t understand.”

Today, the sperm whale population is still recovering from overfishing in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the creatures are threatened by pollution and boat injuries. As research continues, scientists hope that their findings will encourage the public to care more about these massive marine mammals.

After reading about the discovery of the “sperm whale phonetic alphabet,” dive into the tragic story of Shamu, SeaWorld’s most famous orca. Then, learn about Dina Sanichar, the boy who was raised by animals in the Indian jungle.

Amber Morgan
Amber Morgan is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Morgan, Amber. "Researchers Studying Sperm Whale Communication Discover That The Animals Have A Complex ‘Phonetic Alphabet’.", May 14, 2024, Accessed May 23, 2024.