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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sperm whales have names

It has long been known that whales can sing complicated and extemporaneous songs. Apparently, that’s not all they can do. According to a new study by Luke Rendell and his team from the University of St. Andrews and from Dalhousie University, it appears that sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) begin each speech with an identifier. To put it another way, whales may have names.

Sperm whales routinely make short sequences of clicks called ‘codas’. Back in 2008, Rendell and his colleagues showed that whales sing overlapping and/or matching codas to each other. This time, the researchers focused on a specific five click long coda known as 5R. Closer acoustical comparison showed that each whale had a unique 5R signature composition. Not only that, but the 5R coda tended to occur at the beginning of longer strings of clicks or calls.

Although Rendell stresses that this work is in the preliminary stages, it’s hard not to conclude that the whales are giving their ‘call signs’ before each communication.

Sperm Whale picture by cianc.