Whale song has its own 'phonetic alphabet', research shows

Scientists have been trying for decades to understand what the clicking sounds might mean, ITV News' Sam Holder reports

Sperm whale calls are so complex they are comparable to the human language, scientists have discovered.

The claim is based on the analysis of thousands of snippets of whale clicks - known as codas - by scientists studying the animals around the island of Dominica in the Caribbean.

They found the whales use a sort of "phonetic alphabet", enabling them create building blocks of language similar to words and phrases.

Sperm whales communicate by squeezing air through their respiratory systems to make strings of rapid clicks.

Scientists have been trying for decades to understand what the clicks might mean.

But according to Jeremy Goldbogen, an associate professor of oceans at Stanford University, this new research may have "vast implications" for how we understand the creatures.

The scientists say they have found four basic components they think make up the whales' phonetic alphabet. This alphabet can then be used by the whales in an unlimited number of combinations - similarly to how words are used by humans.

The whales also vary the rhythm and tempo of their clicks, adding an extra layer of complexity and meaning.

A sperm whale and her calf swim off the coast of Dominica in March 2024 Credit: AP

"This marks a profound moment in advancing our understanding of sperm whales," Dr David Gruber, the founder of the long-term study, called Project CETI, said. "It opens up the possibility that sperm whales have an incredibly complex and nuanced communication system."

To get enough examples of the sperm whale clicks in Dominica, where there is a population of around 200 whales, scientists created a giant underwater studio with microphones at different depths.

Tags on the whales also record what position they are in while clicking - for example diving, sleeping, or breathing at the surface - and whether other whales are nearby.

Scientists hope they will one day be able to understand what sperm whales are trying to communicate. That knowledge could be used for conservation purposes, like minimising their risk of being hit by ships or reducing ocean noise levels.

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