Whales Have Dialects. Could They Have Cultures Too?

Unique click patterns point to the possibility of differing cultures among groups of sperm whales

Sperm Whales
George Karbus Photography/cultura/Corbis

Humans have long been intrigued by the unique sounds of whales. From marveling over a beluga that mimicked human speech to recording their strangely compelling moos, wheezes and clicks, there’s something that seems to draw human beings to whale sounds, and makes us wonder what they’re saying. But did you ever stop to ask yourself whether they’re speaking with an accent? As the BBC’s Jonathan Amos reports, new research shows that sperm whales have their own dialects — and that those dialects could point to specific cultures among whales.

A team of biologists has discovered that sperm whales have different clans with unique ways of "speaking," reports Amos. The dialects don’t appear to be innate, Amos writes — rather, they seem to be a product of cultural transmission that could mirror the ways in which humans interact.

The study followed sperm whales in the East Pacific over an 18-year period. As they observed the whales, researchers identified what they call a “multi-level society” with different clans and groupings. When they studied two primary clans, researchers found that one communicated with a pattern of varying clicks. The other used regular clicks.

A researcher tells Amos that “the clans do not mix” — they have different movements, behaviors and ways of caring for their young, but they don't mingle. The team thinks that the clicks are used not just to communicate, but to self-identify and indicate membership in a specific clan.

In their paper, the team discusses how they used computer models to figure out how dialects might have come to be. They simulated 20 scenarios to test different types of “language” learning, from genetic inheritance to coaching from other whales. The results, they say, suggest that whales are more likely to learn click patterns from other whales within their own clan, which in turn reinforces the differences between clans.

Could this mean that whales have culture, too? Perhaps, writes Discovery News’ Marlowe Hood: After all, writes Hood, socially learned behavior that gets transmitted to some members of a population is one way to define the word. But ultimately, it all comes down to how you define culture — and as lead author Mauricio Canto tells Hood, in this case the question is a complicated one:

“We do not suggest that animal cultures are the same as the diverse, symbolic and cumulative human cultures,” Cantor said.

“But like us, animals can discover new things, learn and copy things from each other, and pass along this information over generations.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.