Caribbean sperm whales speak with a distinctive accent

Caribbean sperm whales have a distinctive set of calls that sets them apart Caribbean sperm whales have a distinctive set of calls that sets them apart Amanda Cotton
05 Apr
2016
A decade-long survey has shown that sperm whales in the Caribbean region communicate with a particular accent that is exclusive to the area

‘There is a specific dialect in the Caribbean which is not produced anywhere else in the world,’ says Dr Shane Gero, Research Fellow at Aarhus University, Denmark, who has been studying Caribbean sperm whales for 11 years. By collecting and analysing over 4,000 whale calls in the Caribbean, he has found that all sperm whales produce one particular coda – a pattern of clicks – that identifies the ‘speaker’ as being from the Caribbean.

According to Gero, the clicks are not easy for the whales to master: ‘Young whales take at least two years to make these calls accurately enough. They babble before producing the right calls.’

Just as you don’t know everyone who shares your accent personally, whale codas extend beyond acquainted family groups. They learn them despite different pod families rarely or never actually encountering each other.

All sperm whales do the same things: feed, swim, baby-sit and defend. But how they do it is different around the world

Why all that effort? Gero thinks it functions as a kind of cultural identity. ‘Behaviour is what you do, culture is how you do it,’ he says. ‘All sperm whales do the same things: feed, swim, baby-sit and defend. But how they do it is different around the world. When two sperm whale families meet at sea, they need a way to recognise that they behave in the same way. Essentially, their special coda allows them to ask, “I am from the Caribbean, are you?”’

Gero hopes that the whale’s regional uniqueness will emphasise their recent decline and the importance of their protection. His long-term study suggests that the Caribbean population is in decline, perhaps by as much as four per cent per year due to human stressors such as chemical contaminants, fishing gear and ship strikes. ‘What we are losing is their cultural heritage,’ he concludes, ‘one that could not be replaced even if the global population can support remigration into the Caribbean.

This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

EMAIL NEWSLETTER

Get the best stories from Geographical delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades later,...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital has a green future, ...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

Aaron Gekoski continues working alongside the Wildlife Rescue Unit

Geophoto

Today, the camera is regarded as an essential smartphone feature.…

Oceans

An innovative new theory hopes to save millions of lives…

Wildlife

Aaron Gekoski continues his personal adventure into the wilds of…

Wildlife

Simple tracking devices have enabled conservationists to amass big data,…

Climate

In a new report, researchers have calculated the global emissions…

Climate

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Wildlife

The latest episode sees ‘Bertie’ enlisting in wildlife rescue boot…

Energy

Icelandic engineers are attempting to harness the powerful geothermal energy…

Wildlife

New video series tracks the journey of Aaron Gekoski as…

Energy

Newly-developed ‘sustainable rubber’, produced using recycled food waste, could one…

Geophoto

This winter has seen frequent storms and flooding hitting many…

Wildlife

The bison, Poland’s symbol of nature conservation, already faces controversial…

Wildlife

Wolves have arrived at a wildlife park in Devon as…

Climate

An unassuming beach in Denmark is absorbing record-breaking levels of…

Energy

The environmental cost of military activities is significant. Could new…

Wildlife

Latest figures suggest that there are more than twice as…

Tectonics

How does the proposed allocation of ‘Zealandia’ as an independent…

Wildlife

Is extinction forever? While most would assume that yes, extinction…

Geophoto

Wide-angle photography is perhaps the best way to recreate the…