Scientist identify the phonetic alphabet of whales

We've known that whales are intelligent, emotional mammals who often sing songs. But now, a team of researchers from Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) and the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have identified what they believe to be an actual consistent phonetic alphabet in whalespeak—not unlike human vocalizations.

There have been rumors of this breakthrough coming for a while, but now the researchers have finally published a paper in the journal of Nature Communications, titled "Contextual and combinational structure in sperm whale vocalisations."

From MIT Technology Review:

The team analyzed recordings of 8,719 codas from around 60 whales collected by the Dominica Sperm Whale Project between 2005 and 2018, using a mix of algorithms for pattern recognition and classification. They found that the way the whales communicate was not random or simplistic, but structured depending on the context of their conversations. This allowed them to identify distinct vocalizations that hadn't been previously picked up on.


The algorithms turned the clicks within the coda data into a new kind of data visualization the researchers call an exchange plot, revealing that some codas featured extra clicks. These extra clicks, combined with variations in the duration of their calls, appeared in interactions between multiple whales, which the researchers say suggests that codas can carry more information and possess a more complicated internal structure than we'd previously believed.

The New York Times added:

[These] new visualizations also revealed that sperm whales could occasionally add an extra click to the end of the coda, a behavior they call ornamentation. The scientists found evidence that the extra clicks were not just pointless flourishes. The whales that led groups often used ornamentation, after which their followers often responded with codas of their own.

The analysis showed that the conventional catalog of sperm whale codas could not capture their full complexity. Sperm whales can produce a 1+1+3 coda, for example, that lasts four-fifths of a second, or one second, or 1.25 seconds. Other codas may last only one-third of a second or half a second.

All told, the researchers identified 156 different codas, each with distinct combinations of tempo, rhythm, rubato, and ornamentation. Gero said that this variation is strikingly similar to the way humans combine movements in our lips and tongue to produce a set of phonetic sounds.

(Full disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, which is owned by the New York Times Company, which also publishes The New York Times.)

Here's a fun graphic from the paper:

We're obviously still a way's away from fully deciphering whale communications, but it is exciting and interesting that we've at least been able to identify the sounds.

Contextual and combinational structure in sperm whale vocalisations [Pratyusha Sharma, Shane Gero, Roger Payne, David F. Gruber, Daniela Rus, Antonio Torralba & Jacob Andreas / Nature Communications]

The way whales communicate is closer to human language than we realized [Rhiannon Williams / MIT Technology Review]

Scientists Find an 'Alphabet' in Whale Songs [Carl Zimmer / New York Times]

Previously: Scientists report groundbreaking first conversation between humans and whales