The sperm whale has quite the illustrious history. It’s been immortalized in Moby Dick and has a badass reputation as the world’s largest predator. They’re also the loudest animals on the planet.
But there’s more to their loudness. Turns out that sperm whales are pretty talk-y creatures. We’ve long known that they use sounds to convey location and movement; U.S. Navy officers in Pacific waters during World War II often picked up on choirs of sperm whale calls, called echolocation. The calls are, in turn, made up of a pattern of clicks scientists call coda. This means sperm whale talk sounds less like a pulsed call and more like Morse Code:
On Thursday, marine biologists from the University of Southern Denmark announced they’d stumbled into something brand new in sperm whale linguistics. While other scientists previously determined that groups of sperm whales communicated to their pod with a specific coda, the prevailing thought was that they communicated as a single group. But after tracking a group of seven sperm whales off the coast of the Azores islands, the USD marine biologists now believe that sperm whales send individual messages to other individual members of their group.
In other words, it’s less choir, more Broadway show tune.
Overall, the scientists recorded 802 vocalizations from five of the whales (interestingly, two of the whales decided they’d rather not talk). From these, the scientists registered 21 specific series of clicking — what they describe as whale Morse code.
“One could imagine that the vocalizations give information about who each of the individuals in the group are, whether they are heading for the surface or depths or if they have found food,” said researchers Claudia Oliveira and Magnus Wahlberg in a statement. “It could be mothers calling to their young or females inviting males to mate with them.”
Wahlberg and Oliveira would like to go back and study one particularly loquacious sperm whale in their next research trip who was solely responsible for 294 of the 802 vocalizations. All they know right now is that the Chatty Cathy sperm whale is a big one — about 30 feet long — and hypothesize that it may be a matriarch commandeering the group (sperm whales, sensible creatures that they are, live in matriarchal groups).
As for the researchers initial objective, to find out what whales are actually communicating? That’s a mystery.
“They clearly have something on their minds,” Wahlberg and Oliveira announced, “but to be perfectly honest, we haven’t the faintest idea what that might be.”