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Researchers find that Dominica whales use accents to communicate

Thomson Fontaine
Monday 5/23/2011
@ 10:00 p.m.

sperm whales
Two members of “the best studied social unit of sperm whales in the world,” Mother “Fingers” and her baby “Thumb,” swim together off the coast of Dominica.

A group of researchers from the Dominica Sperm Whale Project have been closely following one group of sperm whales, called the "group of seven," made up of four sisters, their aunt and two juvenile males, as they fed, played and cruised off the coast of Dominica.

The group of seven thus became the best studied social unit of sperm whales in the world as the researchers sought to document their communication and other social norms.

The research group, which included Shane Gero, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada determined that sperm whales like to be individuals and use accents to identify themselves to others in their extended family group.

They determined that those from the Caribbean have different ‘accents’ than those from the north Atlantic or Pacific – like patois. Further, baby sperm whales ‘babble’, just like human infants, before they have learned to ‘talk’ properly.

The pattern of clicks used by the sperm whales to communicate are known as codas and the scientists realized they know which whale is speaking and they are able to recognize strangers from any region due to the sound of the codas. Codas can be heard up to one kilometer away.

According to Gero: “just as we can tell our friends apart by the sounds of their voices and the way they pronounce their words, sperm whales can identify each other by the different accents of the clicks. We also discovered that Caribbean and Pacific whales have different repertoires of codas, much like regional dialects.’

Gero has studied the whales of Dominica since 2005 and is looking at how calves get their dialect. The researchers have determined that adults are nomads, living in groups of mothers, daughters, and grandmothers.

Once males reach adolescence, they are ostracized from the group and travel towards the poles until they are ready to breed.

The findings of the researchers were recently published in Animal Behaviour.

Below are sperm whales "resting, echolocating and communicating" off the island of Dominica in January of 2011.

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