Friday, 11 September 2015

Ahoy y’all: Sperm whale clans communicate in different, distinct dialects


by Cat Wilson

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines dialect as, “[A] variety of a language that signals where a person comes from.” It also notes that class and occupation may contribute to dialects. Dialects show up in some interesting places, such as in American Sign Language (ASL), as catalogued by Ethnologue, a compendium of languages. And now, another notable variation has been discovered in a group of sperm whales around the Galapagos Islands. According to National Geographic, this group--consisting of thousands of female sperm whales and their calves--has sorted itself into clans defined by dialects, or a distinct series of clicks also known as codas.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study attempted to figure out what drove the clan structure, which had been observed, but whose formations were a mystery. According to the study, scientists have been observing the clans for more than 30 years. It is only in the last 18 that they have collected the empirical data which resulted in the finding.

A complex social structure

People have long debated and wondered what separates humans from (other) animals. Many theories have been proposed, among them language and the use of tools. Ars Technica reviewed a paper from the peer-reviewed journal Current Anthropology that even proposes our ability to wonder what separates humans from animals is the exact the characteristic that separates humans from animals. Thomas Suddendorf, author of The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, quotes Bertrand Russell’s laundry list of aspects: speech, fire, agriculture, writing, tools, and large-scale cooperation, before neatly debunking most of them in turn.

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