Since I used to work with a marine mammal research group, I like to keep my ear to the ground in that branch of science. Cool things keep popping up, like a recently published study in Animal Behavior postulating that sperm whales have names.
Rendell and his collaborators, including biologists Hal Whitehead, Shane Gero and Tyler Schulz, have for years studied the click sequences, or codas, used by sperm whales to communicate across miles of deep ocean. . . . In the latest study, published Feb. 10 in Animal Behavior, they analyzed a coda made by sperm whales around the world. Called 5R, it’s composed of five consecutive clicks, and superficially appears to be identical in each whale. Analyzed closely, however, variations in click timing emerge. Each of the researchers’ whales had its own personal 5R riff.
. . . “There is no doubt in my mind that the animals can tell the difference between the timing of individuals.” Moreover, 5R tends to be made at the beginning of each coda string as if, like old-time telegraph operators clicking out a call sign, they were identifying themselves. Said Rendell, “It may function to let the animals know which individual is vocalizing.”
It’s not a stretch to think that sperm whales might have personal identifiers — we already know that some dolphin species do. While the researchers hasten to point out that their results come from a small sample size and are not conclusive, I’m going with it for the purely unscientific reason that it makes me smile.
Wired has a short write-up on this, along with a highly cool recording of sperm whale communication. It’s not the 5R discussed in this study, but will give you an excellent idea of what sperm whales sound like when they’re talking. Which, to me, bears a remarkable resemblance to a very large typewriter.
(Note: I should probably apologize for this post heading, but it was irresistible.)