Dalhousie biologists interpret the language of sperm whales
Dalhousie PhD student Shane Gero has recently returned from a seven-week visit to Dominica. He's been traveling to the Caribbean island since 2005 to study families of sperm whales, usually spending two to four months of each year working on the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. One of the goals of this project is to record and compare whale calls over time, examining the various phrases and dialects of sperm whale communities.
- When sperm whales dive together, they make patterns of clicks to each other known as “codas." Recent findings suggest that, not only do different codas mean different things, but that whales can also tell which member of their community is speaking based on the sound properties of the codas. Just as we can tell our friends apart by the sounds of their voices and the way they pronounce their words, different sperm whales make the same pattern of clicks, but with different accents.
- These discoveries were recently published in the journal Animal Behaviour, in an article authored by University of St. Andrews PhD student Ricardo Antunes, Dal alumnus Tyler Schulz, Dal PhD student Shane Gero, Dal professor Dr. Hal Whitehead, and St. Andrews faculty members Dr. Jonathan Gordon and Dr. Luke Rendell.
- The sperm whale’s biggest threat is human pollution. Not only do humans introduce toxins into the ocean, but they also generate harmful sound pollution. Increased shipping traffic, underwater explosions caused by searching for oil, and military sonar all contribute to ocean noise that masks communication between whales.
- The Dominica Sperm Whale Project hopes to understand more about sperm whale society. Shane Gero hopes to communicate a better understanding of life in the oceans to people by using these beautiful whales as examples and by placing an emphasis on “how similar their lives actually are to ours.”
- Part of Mr. Gero’s PhD includes studying how calves acquire their dialect. Baby sperm whales babble at first, and Mr. Gero is interested in discovering how the babies’ diversity of calls gets narrowed down to the family repertoire.
- “No one wants to live in a rock concert. Noise pollution is especially troublesome in the ocean because it is a totally different sensory world.” - Shane Gero, PhD student, Dalhousie
- “Whales have fascinating and complex social lives.” - Dr. Hal Whitehead, professor in the Department of Biology, Dalhousie University
- “One of the most exciting parts [of returning to Dominica] is to go down and see [what whales] are still around. For the first time, sperm whales can be studied as individuals within families." -Shane Gero, PhD student, Dalhousie University
|Fingers and Thumb|
Mother “Fingers” and her baby “Thumb,” swim together off the coast of Dominica
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