HALIFAX, Nova Scotia, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- In decoding the dialects of sperm whale chatter, researchers are beginning to understand why and how the Pacific whales form clans.
New research suggests Pacific sperm whales -- like chimpanzees, killer whales and some species of birds -- are social learners whose existence includes a cultural component.
The revelation is the product of a combination of extensive field work and computer modeling. Through decades of observations, scientists have shown that Pacific sperm whales form clans, and their socializing patterns correspond with unique behaviors and language patterns -- combinations of clicking sounds called "codas."
As part of the latest research effort, researchers from Canada zeroed in on two clans near the Galapagos Islands. Even among sperm whales inhabiting the same close quarters, codas dictated which groups of whales traveled and hunted together.
Next, scientists used their data to build computer models that might explain the clan's formation. Researchers plugged different scenarios into their model, examining the possibility that codas formed individually or innately via genetic coding.
"We try to backtrack the patterns we observe in the wild to infer how the clan segregation could have evolved," Mauricio Cantor, a marine biologist and PhD candidate at Dalhousie University, said in a press release. "The computer will simulate the life of several sperm whale populations that acquire codas in different ways over thousands of years. At the end, we see which case could produce clans with different dialects."
The scenario that made the most sense mathematically was social learning. Researchers say whales copy and learn codas from other whales, but that their learning is likely biased -- meaning the whales don't choose their clan and coda freely. They likely pick their clan's coda in a variety of ways: by conforming to the group, learning codas that are most similar to their natural intonation, and by mimicking the codas of their family and thus the larger clan.
"Our findings show that biased social learning is a required ingredient for the segregation of clans of sperm whales with different 'dialects'," said Cantor, lead author of a new paper on the subject, which was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.
These codas serve to reinforce social cohesion among groups of whales that hunt, migrate and talk together.
"This gives us evidence that key features of human culture -- which we think makes us so different from everything else in nature -- might be at play in populations of other animals," Cantor concluded. "Maybe we're not as different as we thought."