Scientists unlock the secret language of sperm whales with AI

Credit: Amanda Cotton.

For centuries, sperm whales have captivated our imagination with their sheer size and mysterious lives deep in the ocean.

Despite advances in whale science, understanding these magnificent creatures has always been challenging.

Now, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) have made a groundbreaking discovery in how these whales communicate, using the power of machine learning.

Published in Nature Communications, their study reveals that sperm whales use a complex “phonetic alphabet” made up of short bursts of clicks, known as codas, to communicate.

These codas vary greatly depending on the situation, indicating a sophisticated communication system previously unrecognized in marine life.

The research team analyzed 9,000 codas from Eastern Caribbean sperm whale families.

They employed algorithms to recognize patterns and classify the different sounds, discovering that whale communication is far from random.

Instead, it is highly structured, with elements like rhythm, tempo, and additional clicks adding layers of meaning.

For instance, the whales adjust the length of their codas—similar to how musicians play with timing in music, or “rubato.” They also add extra clicks for emphasis, which the researchers refer to as “ornamentation.”

This structured system allows sperm whales to create a wide range of vocalizations, much like combining letters to form words.

Using special recording devices attached to the whales, the researchers captured these vocal patterns in detail.

They observed that individual sperm whales could produce a variety of coda patterns during long conversations, not just repeating the same sounds. This suggests that their communication includes nuanced variations that are recognized and responded to by other whales.

Daniela Rus, director of CSAIL and professor at MIT, emphasized the significance of their findings.

She explained that this research challenges the belief that complex communication systems are unique to humans and shows that sperm whales have sophisticated ways of conveying structured information through sound.

The study’s implications extend beyond just understanding whale communication. It also touches on broader themes of how intelligent life forms communicate in environments vastly different from our own, drawing parallels to how we might one day interact with extraterrestrial life.

David Gruber, leader of Project CETI and a professor at the City University of New York, highlighted the influence of Roger Payne’s earlier work.

Payne’s discovery that whales sing helped spark the “Save the Whales” movement and contributed to marine conservation efforts. This current research builds on that legacy, aiming to further decipher the messages conveyed by whales.

Looking ahead, the researchers plan to explore whether different elements of whale codas carry specific meanings. They are particularly interested in the “duality of patterning,” a linguistic feature where simple elements combine to convey complex information—a trait once thought to be unique to human language.

This pioneering study not only deepens our understanding of one of the ocean’s most enigmatic inhabitants but also paves the way for future discoveries in how other species communicate, offering a glimpse into the vast and varied languages of the animal kingdom.