Whale Songs Animal Language

The songs
of the humpback whale
are among the most complex
in the animal kingdom. Researchers have now mathematically confirmed
that whales have their own syntax that uses sound units to build phrases
that can be combined to form songs that last for hours.

Until now, only humans have demonstrated the ability to use such a hierarchical
structure of communication. The research, published online in the March
2006 issue of the Journal of
the Acoustical Society of America
, offers
a new approach to studying animal communication, although the authors
do not claim that humpback whale songs meet the linguistic rigor necessary
for a true language.

"Humpback songs are not like human language, but elements of language
are seen in their songs," said Ryuji Suzuki, a Howard Hughes Medical
Institute (HHMI) predoctoral fellow in neuroscience at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and first author of the paper.

With limited sight and sense of smell in water, marine mammals are more
dependent on sound–which travels four times faster in water than air–to
communicate. For six months each year, all male humpback whales in a
population sing the same song during mating season. Thought to attract
females, the song evolves over time.

Suzuki and co-authors John Buck and Peter Tyack applied the tools of
information theory–a mathematical study of data encoding and transmission–to
analyze the complex patterns of moans, cries, and chirps in the whales’
songs for clues to the information being conveyed. Buck is an electrical
engineer who specializes in signal processing and underwater acoustics
at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and Tyack is a biologist
at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

from the Howard
Hughes Medical Institute press release

listen to live and recorded whale songs here

This entry was posted in Weird Science. Bookmark the permalink.