Subject: Re: whale communication

Phil Clapham (
Mon, 11 Jan 1999 07:23:07 -0500

Hi Ashley:

Good question, thanks.  Whales communicate in different ways depending
on the kind of whale, and in most cases we have only the vaguest idea of
the details.  as you probably know, there are two kinds of whales,
toothed and baleen.  The toothed whales (dolphins, porpoises, sperm
whales, killer whales, beaked whales etc) often produce higher-frequency
sounds such as clicks or whistles which seem to be used to communicate. 
Sperm whales and some dolphins have been found to have signature sounds
- that is, sounds that allow others to identify that particular
individual from any other.  Killer whales have been studied a lot in
this area, and the results are fascinating.  Different social groups
have different "dialects" of sounds, and the more closely related two
groups are to each other the more sounds like they will have in common.

Baleen whales (like humpbacks) make other kinds of noises.  In the case
of humpbacks and right whales, they can produce various whistles,
squeals and groans, but no one has ever really been able to associate
particular sounds with particular behaviors.  Humpback whales sing (in
the biological sense - a song is any series of sounds repeated in a
pattern, like bird song), and the songs are very complex and long. 
Songs are sung only by males, and mostly (but not entirely) on the
breeding grounds in winter; their main purpose is probably to attract
females, and perhaps to keep other males away.  Fin whales produce very
low-frequency sounds (so low we can't hear them) in a pattern which may
or may not be something to do with breeding.

As for how their communication is different from ours, it isn't clear. 
The big thing that humans have is of course language, which is a very
structured system of syntax and grammar.  There's a lot of debate about
whether: a) any other animal has language naturally (most people don't
think any other species does); and b) any other animal is capable of
learning language rules.  There have been some famous experiments
conducted with chimpanzees and gorillas using sign language; these seem
to suggest that other primates can use the rules of human language. 
Lesser studies have been done with dolphins by Dr Lou Herman and
colleagues in Hawaii; they've used symbols rather than sign language,
and the work also suggests that dolphins can understand concepts like
syntax and form novel sentences.

Hope it's not too cold in Montana!

Phil Clapham

John P. Cavanaugh Jr. wrote:
> Phil,
>   My name is Ashley and I am a 6th grader.  My question is how do
> whale's communicate to each other?  How is their communication different
> or simular to human communications.   Sincerely, Ashley in Montana
> Thank You for all your help!


Phillip J. Clapham, Ph.D.
Northeast Fisheries Science Center
166 Water Street
Woods Hole, MA 02543

tel (508) 495-2316
fax (508) 495-2066