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I Speak Whale

There is one thing about stories written for adults that is almost always different from stories that younger people enjoy: the animals NEVER talk. It’s a shame because adding a horse’s, crow’s, or dog’s point of view to a story might really liven up some otherwise tedious classics. How much more interesting might Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick have been if every other chapter was told by the whale himself?

Well, it turns out that sometime soon we might just get to hear their voices from a whole new perspective! Animal researchers have started to recognize that the noises our animal friends make are not just chirps and grunts and howls. Animals can communicate some pretty complicated messages to each other—much more than just “Yum! I sure love grass!” or “You’re annoying me.”

Animal language researcher Con Slobodchikoff at Northern Arizona University studied prairie dogs for more than 40 years and figured out that the critters he was studying were observing him just as closely. “They’re able to describe the color of clothes the humans are wearing, they’re able to describe the size and shape of humans, even, amazingly, whether a human once appeared with a gun,” he said. Another team at the University of Washington determined that crows not only remembered the face of someone they considered hostile, but they told their families and neighbors. Years later their children, grandchildren, and other groups of crows in the area recognized that individual and would caw loudly at them when they came nearby.

crow

Crow by Marnee Jill Williams via Flickr cc by 2.0 deed.

Just this May, the Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI) published a research paper saying the years of recordings they have made of the clicks and pops made by sperm whales in the Caribbean prove that the whales are talking to one another.

To make that discovery, they fed the data they collected about the timing, sequence, and grouping of the whale sounds into artificial intelligence programs to identify patterns. They learned that the whale’s clicks are grouped and repeated in distinct ways that form a kind of “whale vocabulary.” They can’t tell what the whales are saying to one another—but it is clearly some kind of language. Another observation they made is that whale calves, like human babies, spend a couple of years babbling and making random noises before they master the language of their family group. Whale families do stick together, and each clan seems to have its own variations on the language. It could be that, like your friends or relatives from a different region, each group has an accent or dialect. It might even be that whale families have in-jokes that outsiders don’t get.

CETI’s research helps explain why, in the 1800s, only a few years after whalers started hunting in the Pacific, sperm whales across the whole ocean started avoiding ships and used new strategies to evade them. Now, scientists studying all kinds of animal communication are hopeful that they will be able not only to interpret what animals—from prairie dogs and elephants to crows and coyotes—are saying to one another, they’ll be able to communicate with them. If that happens, it’s sure to be only a few years before we can read Ahab and Me: My Side of the Story, by Moby Dick.

by Richard O’Regan

Did You Know?

Powder Monkey

The Age of Sail was said to be the domain of “wooden ships and iron men,” but sailing ships also had boys on their official crew lists.

Today, you have to be 14 years old before you can get a job in most states in the US, but in the Age of Sail both merchant ships and navy vessels signed on boys as young as seven years old as regular members of the crew.

What were these kids doing on board sailing ships?

Learn more at Kids as Crew