Scientists Begin to Decode Whale Speak

Cetaceans are known to be among the most clever and intelligent of all mammals. They have brains that are roughly the same size as humans or larger, which are similarly or superiorly complex (although differently evolved in structure). This has led some marine biologists to speculate that whales, and other Cetaceans, could be as intelligent as humans, and may even have several unknown communicative abilities, that surpass our current understanding through sonar and other means.

Critics say that if cetaceans were as smart as us there’d be more evidence of it. But what type of evidence would suffice? The fact that Cetaceans are suffering from (rather than creating) the kind of environmental suicide that humans indulge in, is not necessarily proof of inferiority.

It is known that the prehistoric predecessors of Cetaceans were land animals who returned to the sea where there was relatively little fear of large predators and an abundant food supply. Dolphins and whales appear to have rich communicative powers among themselves and are very playful. It is also known that dolphins can use tools and teach their children how to use tools. Dolphins are one of the few animals other than humans known to mate for pleasure rather than strictly for reproduction. They form strong bonds with each other, which leads them to stay with their injured and sick. Dolphins also display protective behavior towards humans, by keeping them safe from sharks, for example.

Now Australian scientists studying humpback whales sounds say they have begun to decode the whale's mysterious communication system. They say they’ve already identified male “pick-up lines” as well as motherly warnings.

Scientists from the University of Queensland working on the Humpback Whale Acoustic Research Collaboration (HARC) project are trying to break the mysterious communication systems of whales. Whalesong is said to be audible to other whales halfway across the planet. But what do all their melodic squeaks, moans, grumbles and singing mean? The scientists have begun recording some of the whales’ extensive repertoire in an effort to answer that very question.

Recording whale sounds over a three-year period, scientists discovered at least 34 different types of whale calls, with data published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

"I was expecting to find maybe 10 different social vocalizations, but in actual fact found 34. It's just such a wide, varied repertoire," University of Queensland researcher Rebecca Dunlop told Reuters.

The researchers studied migrating east humpback whales, as they traveled up and down Australia's east coast, and recorded 660 sounds from 61 different groups. Dunlop says that some of the sounds recorded could have multiple meanings depending on how they are grouped, for example, but some sounds appeared to have one clear meaning, such as the “purr” sound from males ready to try their luck with an available female. High frequency “screams” were associated with disagreements. A “wop” sound was common when mothers were together with their young.

"The wop was probably one of the most common sounds I heard, probably signifying a mum calf contact call," said Dunlop.

Perhaps something like, “Junior, Junior! Get over here now!”

Dunlop says there are clear similarities with human interaction.

"Its quite fascinating that they're obviously marine mammals, they've been separated from terrestrial mammals for a long, long, long time, but yet still seem to be following the same basic communication system," she said.

The scientists are hoping that further research on the subject will reveal more of their mysterious “language” and what effects boats and man-induced sonar are having on migrating whales. [via daily galaxy]

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