Sperm Whales Identify Each Other Through Symbolic Sounds Called “Aural Tattoos”

Through the years, researchers have released studies about how animals maneuver their daily lives. The internet already has a compilation of facts that help people know more about a particular species. Part of that information is how each animal group communicates with one another. It is incredible that some of them still differ in communication signals even though they are of the same species. For example, there are various whales, but each type sends distinct signals to show identification.

Photo: Youtube/BBC Earth

One specific whale type has been part of a recent study where researchers identified their communication method. According to their research, sperm whales use aural tattoos to set them apart from other whales. The daily life of the toothed whale is certainly intriguing, especially when they have the largest brains among all the species on the planet. Scientists aim to know how sperm whales utilize their brains. During their observation, they discovered how they amazingly identify their own. The team’s findings were published in the online journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Photo: Youtube/BBC Earth

To further explain how aural tattoos work, scientists compared it with how humans express culture as a form of identification. Symbolical marking can also be someone’s lifestyle choice — how they dress, talk, and present themselves. One of the lead authors of the study, Dr. Taylor Hersh, explained, “A clear human analogy is that if you see someone wearing a necklace with a cross on it or a star of David, you know just from looking at that symbol something about a group the person considers themselves to be a member of.”

Sperm whales send signals through loud staccato clicks from their heads. The call is also utilized to echolocate prey, similar to morse codes. Researchers determined it as “identity codas” — the method sperm whales use to make other whales aware of their presence. “The signal can either be received by, or directed at, members of the same group (us) or members of different groups (them), or both,” Hal Whitehead shared in an interview with The Guardian.

Photo: Youtube/BBC Earth

Their work involved seven whale groups from the Pacific Ocean with different identity codes. Those signals are utilized amidst social bonding, like when humans connect through music. Every click they produce is how whales express their preferences. The clicks aren’t only conveyed to the group but also announce their arrival to other whales. Researchers have figured out the significance of clicks, but the meaning of each signal is yet to be analyzed.

Photo: Pexels/Emma Li

Tom Mustill has published his latest book entitled, How to Speak Whale. The book’s contents include the possibility of understanding whale language in the coming future. Humans might be able to translate the aural tattoos through complex underwater lining systems. The process involves one sperm whale pod, and researchers will observe how they react to weather, food, and social conditions.

AI analysis will be utilized by the Cetacean Translation Initiative to decode the clicks. To gather further data, CETI will opt for chatbots to know the thoughts conveyed by the sperm whale. The idea is a reference from the 2001 movie Space Odyssey, but it was about aliens and sonar clicks. If the project succeeds, humans will be able to converse with the largest underwater mammal. It’s indeed a huge step — a remarkable milestone for humans that can boost the progress of building a connection with animals.

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