Whales Have an Alphabet (2024)

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michael barbaro

From “The New York Times,” I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

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Today, ever since the discovery that whales produce songs, scientists have been trying to find a way to decipher their lyrics. After 60 years, they may have finally done it. My colleague, Carl Zimmer, explains.

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It’s Friday, May 24.

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Hi, Carl.

carl zimmer

Hello.

michael barbaro

I have to say, after many years of working with you on everything from the pandemic to —

carl zimmer

CRISPR.

michael barbaro

— CRISPR DNA technology, that it turns out your interests are even more varied than I had thought, and they include whales.

carl zimmer

They do indeed.

michael barbaro

And why? What is it about the whale that captures your imagination?

carl zimmer

I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who is not fascinated by whales. I mean, these are mammals like us, and they’re swimming around in the water. They have brains that are much bigger than ours. They can live maybe 200 years. These are incredible animals, and animals that we still don’t really understand.

michael barbaro

Right. Well, it is this majestic creature that brings us together today, Carl, because you have been reporting on a big breakthrough in our understanding of how it is that whales communicate. But I think in order for that breakthrough to make sense, I think we’re going to have to start with what we have known up until now about how whales interact. So tell us about that.

carl zimmer

Well, people knew that whales and dolphins traveled together in groups, but up until the 1960s, we didn’t really know that whales actually made any sounds at all. It was actually sort of an accident that we came across it. The American military was developing sophisticated microphones to put underwater. They wanted to listen for Russian submarines.

michael barbaro

Naturally.

carl zimmer

As one does. But there was an engineer in Bermuda, and he started hearing some weird stuff.

[WHALE SOUNDS]

And he wondered maybe if he was actually listening to whales.

michael barbaro

What made him wonder if it was whales, of all things?

carl zimmer

Well, this sound did not sound like something geological.

[WHALE SOUNDS]

It didn’t sound like some underwater landslide or something like that. This sounded like a living animal making some kind of call. It has these incredible deep tones that rise up into these strange, almost falsetto type notes.

[WHALE SOUNDS]

It was incredibly loud. And so it would have to be some really big animal. And so with humpback whales swimming around Bermuda, this engineer thought, well, maybe these are humpback whales.

And so he gets in touch with a husband and wife team of whale biologists, Roger and Katy Payne, and plays these recordings to them. And they’re pretty convinced that they’re hearing whales, too. And then they go on to go out and confirm that by putting microphones in the water, chasing after groups of whales and confirming, yes, indeed, that these sounds are coming from these humpback whales.

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michael barbaro

So once these scientists confirm in their minds that these are the sounds of a whale, what happens with this discovery?

carl zimmer

Well, Roger and Katy Payne and their colleagues are astonished that this species of whale is swimming around singing all the time for hours on end. And it’s so inspirational to them that they actually help to produce a record that they release “The Song of the Humpback Whale” in 1970.

michael barbaro

Huh.

[WHALE SOUNDS]

carl zimmer

And so this is being sold in record stores, you know, along with Jimi Hendrix and Rolling Stones. And it is a huge hit.

michael barbaro

Really?

carl zimmer

Yeah, it sells like two million copies.

michael barbaro

Wow.

carl zimmer

Well, at the time, it was a huge cultural event. This record, this became almost like an anthem of the environmental movement. And it led, for whales in particular, to a lot of protections for them because now people could appreciate that whales were a lot more marvelous and mysterious than they maybe had appreciated before.

And so you have legislation, like the Marine Mammal Act. The United States just agrees just to stop killing whales. It stops its whaling industry. And so you could argue that the discovery of these whale songs in Bermuda led to at least some species of whales escaping extinction.

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michael barbaro

Well, beyond the cultural impact of this discovery, which is quite meaningful, I wonder whether scientists and marine biologists are figuring out what these whale songs are actually communicating.

carl zimmer

So the Paynes create a whole branch of science, the study of whale songs. It turns out that pretty much every species of whale that we know of sings in some way or another. And it turns out that within a species, different groups of whales in different parts of the world may sing with a different dialect. But the big question of what these whales are singing, what do these songs mean, that remains elusive into the 21st century. And things don’t really change until scientists decide to take a new look at the problem in a new way.

michael barbaro

And what is that new way?

carl zimmer

So in 2020, a group of whale biologists, including Roger Payne, come together with computer scientists from MIT. Instead of humpback whales, which were the whales where whale songs are first discovered, these scientists decide to study sperm whales in the Caribbean. And humpback whales and sperm whales have very, very different songs. So if you’re used to humpback whales with their crazy high and low singing voices —

michael barbaro

Right, those best-selling sounds.

carl zimmer

— those are rockin’ tunes of the humpback whales, that’s not what sperm whales do. Sperm whales have a totally different way of communicating with each other. And I actually have some recordings that were provided by the scientists who have been doing this research. And so we can take a listen to some of them.

[CLICKING]

michael barbaro

Wow, It’s like a rhythmic clicking.

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carl zimmer

These are a group of sperm whales swimming together, communicating.

[CLICKING]

So whale biologists knew already that there was some structure to this sound. Those clicks that you hear, they come in little pulses. And each of those pulses is known as a coda. And whale biologists had given names to these different codas. So, for example, they call one coda, one plus one plus three —

[CLICKING]

— which is basically click, click, click, click, click, or four plus three, where you have four clicks in a row and a pause and then three clicks in a row.

michael barbaro

Right. And the question would seem to be, is this decipherable communication, or is this just whale gibberish?

carl zimmer

Well, this is where the computer scientists were able to come in and to help out. The whale biologists who were listening to the codas from the sperm whales in the Caribbean, they had identified about 21 types. And then that would seem to be about it.

But then, an MIT computer science graduate student named Prajusha Sharma was given the job of listening to them again.

michael barbaro

And what does she hear?

carl zimmer

In a way, it’s not so much what she heard, but what she saw.

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Because when scientists record whale songs, you can look at it kind of like if you’re looking at an audio of a recording of your podcast, you will see the little squiggles of your voice.

michael barbaro

Right.

carl zimmer

And so whale biologists would just look at that ticker of whale songs going across the screen and try to compare them. And Sharma said, I don’t like this. I just — this is not how I look at data. And so what she decided to do is she decided to kind of just visualize the data differently. And essentially, she just kind of flipped these images on their side and saw something totally new.

And what she saw was that sperm whales were singing a whole bunch of things that nobody had actually been hearing.

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One thing that she discovered was that you could have a whale that was producing a coda over and over and over again, but it was actually playing with it. It was actually stretching out the coda,

[CLICKING] So to get a little bit longer and a little bit longer, a little bit longer.

[CLICKING]

And then get shorter and shorter and shorter again. They could play with their codas in a way that nobody knew before. And she also started to see that a whale might throw in an extra click at the end of a coda. So it would be repeating a coda over and over again and then boom, add an extra one right at the end. What they would call an ornamentation. So now, you have yet another signal that these whales are using.

And if we just look at what the sperm whales are capable of producing in terms of different codas, we go from just 21 types that they had found in the Caribbean before to 156. So what the scientists are saying is that what we might be looking at is what they call a sperm whale phonetic alphabet.

michael barbaro

Wow.

carl zimmer

Yeah, that’s a pretty big deal because the only species that we know of for sure that has a phonetic alphabet —

michael barbaro

Is us!

carl zimmer

— is us, exactly. So the reason that we can use language is because we can make a huge range of sounds by just doing little things with our mouths. A little change in our lips can change a bah to a dah. And so we are able to produce a set of phonetic sounds. And we put those sounds together to make words.

So now, we have sperm whales, which have at least 150 of these different versions of sounds that they make just by making little adjustments to the existing way that they make sounds. And so you can make a chart of their phonetic alphabet, just like you make a chart of the human phonetic alphabet.

So then, that raises the question, do they combine their phonetic alphabet into words? Do they combine their words into sentences? In other words, do sperm whales have a language of their own?

michael barbaro

Right. Are they talking to each other, really talking to each other?

carl zimmer

If we could really show that whales had language on par with humans, that would be like finding intelligent life on another planet.

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[CLICKING]

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

So, Carl, how should we think about this phonetic alphabet and whether sperm whales are actually using it to talk to each other?

carl zimmer

The scientists on this project are really careful to say that these results do not definitively prove what these sperm whale sounds are. There are a handful of possibilities here in terms of what this study could mean. And one of them is that the whales really are using full-blown language.

What they might be talking about, we don’t know. I mean, perhaps they like to talk about their travels over hundreds and thousands of miles. Maybe they’re talking about, you know, the giant squid that they caught last night. Maybe they’re gossiping about each other.

And you have to remember, sperm whales are incredibly social animals. They have relationships that last for decades. And they live in groups that are in clans of thousands of whales. I mean, imagine the opportunities for gossip.

michael barbaro

Right.

carl zimmer

These are all at least imaginable now. But it’s also possible that they are communicating with each other, but in a way that isn’t language as we know it. You know, maybe these sounds that they’re producing don’t add up to sentences. There’s no verb there. There’s no noun. There’s no structure to it in terms of how we think of language.

But maybe they’re still conveying information to each other. Maybe they’re somehow giving out who they are and what group they belong to. But it’s not in the form of language that we think of.

michael barbaro

Right. Maybe it’s more kind of caveman like as in whale to whale, look, there, food.

carl zimmer

It’s possible. But, you know, other species have evolved in other directions. And so you have to put yourself in the place of a sperm whale. You know, so think about this. They are communicating in the water. And actually, like sending sounds through water is a completely different experience than through the air like we do.

So a sperm whale might be communicating to the whale right next to it a few yards away, but it might be communicating with whales miles away, hundreds of miles away. They’re in the dark a lot of the time, so they don’t even see the whales right next to them. So it’s just this constant sound that they’re making because they’re in this dark water.

So we might want to imagine that such a species would talk the way we do, but there are just so many reasons to expect that whatever they’re communicating might be just profoundly different, so different that it’s actually hard for us to imagine. And so we need to really, you know, let ourselves be open to lots of possibilities.

And one possibility that some scientists have raised is that maybe language is just the wrong model to think about. Maybe we need to think about music. You know, maybe this strange typewriter, clickety clack is actually not like a Morse code message, but is actually a real song. It’s a kind of music that doesn’t necessarily convey information the way conversation does, but it brings the whales together.

In humans, like, when we humans sing together in choruses, it can be a very emotional experience. It’s a socially bonding experience, but it’s not really like the specific words that we’re singing that bring us together when we’re singing. It’s sharing the music together.

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[CLICKING]

michael barbaro

But at a certain point, we stop singing in the chorus, and we start asking each other questions like, hey, what are you doing for dinner? How are you going to get home? There’s a lot of traffic on the BQE. So we are really drawn to the possibility that whales are communicating in that same kind of a mode.

We’re exchanging information. We’re seeking out each other’s well-being and emotional state. And we’re building something together.

carl zimmer

And I think that happens because, I mean, language is so fundamental to us as human beings. I mean, it’s like every moment of our waking life depends on language. We are talking to ourselves if we’re not talking to other people.

michael barbaro

Right.

carl zimmer

In our sleep, we dream, and there are words in our dreams. And we’re just stewing in language. And so it’s really, really hard for us to understand how other species might have a really complex communication system with hundreds of different little units of sound that they can use and they can deploy. And to think anything other than, well, they must be talking about traffic on the BQE. Like —

michael barbaro

OK.

carl zimmer

— we’re very human-centric. And we have to resist that.

michael barbaro

So what we end up having here is a genuine breakthrough in our understanding of how whales interact. And that seems worth celebrating in and of itself. But it really kind of doubles as a lesson in humility for us humans when it comes to appreciating the idea that there are lots of non-human ways in which language can exist.

carl zimmer

That’s right. Humility is always a good idea when we’re thinking about other animals.

michael barbaro

So what now happens in this realm of research? And how is it that these scientists, these marine biologists and these computer scientists are going to try to figure out what exactly this alphabet amounts to and how it’s being used?

carl zimmer

So what’s going to happen now is a real sea change in gathering data from whales.

michael barbaro

So to speak.

carl zimmer

So these scientists are now deploying a new generation of undersea microphones. They’re using drones to follow these whales. And what they want to do is they want to be recording sounds from the ocean where these whales live 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And so the hope is that instead of getting, say, a few 100 codas each year on recording, these scientists want to get several hundred million every year, maybe billions of codas every year.

And once you get that much data from whales, then you can start to do some really amazing stuff with artificial intelligence. So these scientists hope that they can use the same kind of artificial intelligence that is behind things like ChatGPT or these artificial intelligence systems that are able to take recordings of people talking and transcribing them into text. They want to use that on the whale communication.

They want to just grind through vast amounts of data, and maybe they will discover more phonetic letters in this alphabet. Who knows? Maybe they will actually find bigger structures, structures that could correspond to language.

If you go really far down this route of possibilities, the hope is that you would understand what sperm whales are saying to each other so well that you could actually create artificial sperm whale communication, and you could play it underwater. You could talk to the sperm whales. And they would talk back. They would react somehow in a way that you had predicted. If that happens, then maybe, indeed, sperm whales have something like language as we understand it.

michael barbaro

And the only way we’re going to figure that out is if we figure out not just how they talk to themselves, but how we can perhaps talk to them, which, given everything we’ve been talking about here, Carl, is a little bit ironic because it’s pretty human-centric.

carl zimmer

That’s right. This experiment could fail. It’s possible that sperm whales don’t do anything like language as we know it. Maybe they’re doing something that we can’t even imagine yet. But if sperm whales really are using codas in something like language, we are going to have to enter the conversation to really understand it.

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michael barbaro

Well, Carl, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

carl zimmer

Thank you. Sorry. Can I say that again? My voice got really high all of a sudden.

michael barbaro

A little bit like a whale’s. Ooh.

carl zimmer

Yeah, exactly. Woot. Woot.

michael barbaro

Try again.

carl zimmer

Thank yoooo. No. Thank you.

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michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

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Here’s what else you need to know today.

archived recording (merrick garland)

We allege that Live Nation has illegally monopolized markets across the live concert industry in the United States for far too long. It is time to break it up.

michael barbaro

On Thursday, the Justice Department sued the concert giant Live Nation Entertainment, which owns Ticketmaster, for violating federal antitrust laws and sought to break up the $23 billion conglomerate. During a news conference, Attorney General Merrick Garland said that Live Nation’s monopolistic tactics had hurt the entire industry of live events.

archived recording (merrick garland)

The result is that fans pay more in fees, artists have fewer opportunities to play concerts, smaller promoters get squeezed out, and venues have fewer real choices.

michael barbaro

In a statement, Live Nation called the lawsuit baseless and vowed to fight it in court.

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A reminder — tomorrow, we’ll be sharing the latest episode of our colleagues’ new show, “The Interview.” This week on “The Interview,” Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with Ted Sarandos, the CEO of Netflix, about his plans to make the world’s largest streaming service even bigger.

archived recording (ted sarandos)

I don’t agree with the premise that quantity and quality are somehow in conflict with each other. I think our content and our movie programming has been great, but it’s just not all for you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

michael barbaro

Today’s episode was produced by Alex Stern, Stella Tan, Sydney Harper, and Nina Feldman. It was edited by MJ Davis, contains original music by Pat McCusker, Dan Powell, Elisheba Ittoop, Marion Lozano, and Sophia Lanman, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

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Special thanks to Project SETI for sharing their whale recordings.

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That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you on Tuesday after the holiday.

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