Scientists announce breakthrough discovery of a whale 'alphabet'

A team of researchers believes they have unlocked a sperm whale 'alphabet' by implementing machine learning technologies into cetacean communication.

1 minute & 28 seconds read time

Researchers have penned a new study called the "Contextual and Combinatorial Structure in Sperm Whale Vocalizations" and it details a new "alphabet" that has been discovered.

Scientists announce breakthrough discovery of a whale 'alphabet' 651565

Scientists from MIT CSAIL and Project CETI state they have developed a breakthrough in understanding cetacean communication. Notably, cetaceans include the following species: whales, dolphins, and porpoises. So, what did they do? The team took what is called codas, which are a series of different linguistic vocalizations that have been studied for decades, and applied machine learning technologies to decipher what is being "said."

According to reports, the research took 8,719 sperm whale codas there was collected by researcher Shane Gero from time spent off the coast of Dominica, a small Caribbean Island, and applied them to a machine learning algorithm while also factoring in contextual details through implementing music terminology.

The team included aspects such as tempo, rhythm, ornamentation, and rubato. By implementing these musical terminologies, the team believes it was able to isolate different sperm whale sounds to form a phonetic alphabet.

"This phonetic alphabet makes it possible to systematically explain the observed variability in the coda structure. We believe that it's possible that this is the first instance outside of human language where a communication provides an example of the linguistic concept of duality of patterning. That refers to a set of individually meaningless elements that can be combined to form larger meaningful units, sort of like combining syllables into words," said CSAIL director Daniela Rus to TechCrunch

"Our results demonstrate that sperm whale vocalizations form a complex combinatorial communication system: the seemingly arbitrary inventory of coda types can be explained by combinations of rhythm, tempo, rubato, and ornamentation features. Sizable combinatorial vocalization systems are exceedingly rare in nature; however, their use by sperm whales shows that they are not uniquely human, and can arise from dramatically different physiological, ecological, and social pressures," reads the study

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