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Warbling whales speak a language all their own

The songs of the humpback whale are among the most complex in the animal kingdom. Researchers have now mathematically confirmed that whales have their own syntax that uses sound units to build phrases that can be combined to form songs that last for hours.

Until now, only humans have demonstrated the ability to use such a hierarchical structure of communication. The research, published online in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, offers a new approach to studying animal communication, although the authors do not claim that humpback whale songs meet the linguistic rigor necessary for a true language.

"Humpback songs are not like human language, but elements of language are seen in their songs," said Ryuji Suzuki, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) predoctoral fellow in neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and first author of the paper.

With limited sight and sense of smell in water, marine mammals are more dependent on sound--which travels four times faster in water than air--to communicate. For six months each year, all male humpback whales in a population sing the same song during mating season. Thought to attract females, the song evolves over time.

Suzuki and co-authors John Buck and Peter Tyack applied the tools of information theory--a mathematical study of data encoding and transmission--to analyze the complex patterns of moans, cries, and chirps in the whales' songs for clues to the information being conveyed. Buck is an electrical engineer who specializes in signal processing and underwater acoustics at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and Tyack is a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Suzuki, who began the project as an electrical engineering undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, worked with Buck and Tyack to develop a computer program to break down the elements of the whale's song and assig
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Contact: Jennifer Donovan
donovanj@hhmi.org
301-215-8859
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
21-Mar-2006


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