Like Humans, Sperm Whales Have Dialects

Flukes of sperm whales off Sri Lanka. The animals have dialects that emerge via cultural transmission, a study shows. David Loh / REUTERS

Sperm whales communicate by making very loud clicks—which are actually the loudest noises produced by any animal—in a certain pattern, not unlike Morse code. But the cadence they use to talk among themselves is not innate—it's learned from their peers and family members, according to a study published this week in Nature Communications. In other words, they might have click "dialects."

This is not the first, and certainly not the last piece of evidence that animals have culture. Andy Whiten and colleagues showed in the late 1990s that chimpanzees engaged in many activities differently among different groups, in ways that suggest they were learning these behaviors from each other. Chimps in one area learned to uses sticks to eat ants from one another, but didn't in another nearby area.

More recent work has turned up "cultural" learning in other animals, including killer whales, which also have dialects they pick up from one another, and humpbacks, which learn unique feeding behaviors from their peers.

In the latest study, researchers analyzed sperm whale clicks, employing a computer model to see if the patterns used by different individuals correlated with genetic relatedness, or transmission from mothers to offspring. The computer model showed that these factors couldn't explain the emergence of these whale "dialects," and that something like cultural transmission is most likely at play.

"These findings suggest that processes similar to those that generate complex human cultures could not only be at play in nonhuman societies," the authors write in the study.