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Sperm whale ‘alphabet’ discovered, thanks to machine learning
May 10, 2024

Sperm whale ‘alphabet’ discovered, thanks to machine learning

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Researchers at MIT CSAIL and Project CETI believe that they have unlocked a kind of sperm whale ‘alphabet’ with the aid of machine learning technologies. Results from the study, which were published under the title, ‘Contextual and Combinatorial Structure in Sperm Whale Vocalizations,’ point to key breakthroughs in our understanding of cetacean communication.

While whale vocalization has been a key subject of research for decades, the teams behind this new research suggest that they’ve uncovered a level of previously unknown nuance among the chatty sea mammals. The paper notes that previous research has noted 150 different sperm whale codas.

‘A subset of these have been shown to encode information about caller and clan identity,’ it explains. ‘However, almost everything else about the sperm whale communication system, including basic questions about its structure and information-carrying capacity, remains unknown.’

The teams drew on work from Roger Payne, the pioneering marine biologist who passed away last June. Payne’s most influential work involved the songs of humpback whales. ‘He has really inspired us to want to use our most advanced technologies to want to have a deeper understanding of the whales,’ says Rus.

The teams deployed machine learning solutions to analyze a dataset of 8,719 sperm whale codas collected by researcher Shane Gero off the coast of the small eastern Caribbean island, Dominica.

‘We would get the inputs, and then we adjust our machine learning, to visualize better and to understand more,’ explains Rus. ‘And then we would analyze the output with a biologist.’

The team’s method marked a change from older analysis, which studied individual coda. A richer picture forms when the sounds are studied in context, as exchanges between whales. Contextual details are classified using music terminology. That includes tempo, rhythm, ornamentation and rubato. From there, the team isolated what it refers to as a sperm whale phonetic alphabet.

‘This phonetic alphabet makes it possible to systematically explain the observed variability in the coda structure,’ says Rus. ‘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.’

The meaning of those ‘words’ take on different meanings based on various context. The paper adds:

While the breakthrough is exciting for all involved, there’s still a lot of work to be done, first with sperm whales and then potentially broadening out to other species like humpbacks.

‘We decided to go to sperm whales because we had an extensive dataset, and we have the possibility of collecting many more datasets,’ says Rus. ‘Also, because the clicks form a kind of discrete communication system, it is much easier to analyze than a continuous communication system. But even Roger Payne’s work showed that the songs of humpback whales are not random. There are segments that get repeated and there is interesting structure there. We just haven’t gotten to do an in-depth study.’


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