Cliques of Clicks: How Sperm Whale Dialects Influence Social Groups

By Botkin-Kowacki, Eva | The Christian Science Monitor, September 8, 2015 | Go to article overview

Cliques of Clicks: How Sperm Whale Dialects Influence Social Groups


Botkin-Kowacki, Eva, The Christian Science Monitor


Human social groups often tend to form based on common backgrounds, interests, or languages.

Deep in the ocean, cliques are click-based, say scientists. Sperm whales, with the largest brains and most powerful sonar in nature, also prefer to hang out with whales they have the most in common with.

The whales' communication tipped off researchers: Different groups of sperm whales make different sounds.

The clicks that these whales use to communicate actually constitute different dialects that reinforce social hierarchies, say researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax in a paper published in the journal Nature on Tuesday.

Researchers have long known that female sperm whales frequently form clans based on family relations. "You usually find a mom and her calf and grandmas and other related individuals all hanging out together and chit-chatting," says Mauricio Cantor, lead author and PhD candidate in the biology department at Dalhousie University.

"They do form groups with other females. But, the thing is, they tend to form groups with those whales that already perform the same types of sounds for communication," Mr. Cantor adds. Researchers call this a vocal clan.

Which came first, dialects or clans?Researchers have puzzled over whether the structure of whale society led to the development of dialects or if dialects grouped whales together in distinct clans. It was a chicken-and-egg problem.

"It is kind of a circular relationship," says Cantor, "an interplay between who you interact with and what kind of information or behavior you learn from that."

"It's what we call biased social learning," Cantor says. The whales tend to interact with other individuals that already communicate like them, but they also learn the dominant ways of communicating in order to fit in that group. "They tend to learn the most common sounds, like conforming to a fashion," Cantor explains.

A question of cultureCan animals have culture? …

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