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posted by hubie on Monday May 13, @04:19AM   Printer-friendly

Researchers reveal complex communication patterns in sperm whales:

The allure of whales has stoked human consciousness for millennia, casting these ocean giants as enigmatic residents of the deep seas. From the biblical Leviathan to Herman Melville's formidable Moby Dick, whales have been central to mythologies and folklore. And while cetology, or whale science, has improved our knowledge of these marine mammals in the past century in particular, studying whales has remained a formidable a challenge.

Now, thanks to machine learning, we're a little closer to understanding these gentle giants. Researchers from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) recently used algorithms to decode the "sperm whale phonetic alphabet," revealing sophisticated structures in sperm whale communication akin to human phonetics and communication systems in other animal species.

In a new open-access study published in Nature Communications, the research shows that sperm whales codas, or short bursts of clicks that they use to communicate, vary significantly in structure depending on the conversational context, revealing a communication system far more intricate than previously understood.

[...] The researchers identified something of a "sperm whale phonetic alphabet," where various elements that researchers call "rhythm," "tempo," "rubato," and "ornamentation" interplay to form a vast array of distinguishable codas. For example, the whales would systematically modulate certain aspects of their codas based on the conversational context, such as smoothly varying the duration of the calls — rubato — or adding extra ornamental clicks. But even more remarkably, they found that the basic building blocks of these codas could be combined in a combinatorial fashion, allowing the whales to construct a vast repertoire of distinct vocalizations.

[...] "We are venturing into the unknown, to decipher the mysteries of sperm whale communication without any pre-existing ground truth data," says Daniela Rus, CSAIL director and professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) at MIT. "Using machine learning is important for identifying the features of their communications and predicting what they say next. Our findings indicate the presence of structured information content and also challenges the prevailing belief among many linguists that complex communication is unique to humans. This is a step toward showing that other species have levels of communication complexity that have not been identified so far, deeply connected to behavior. Our next steps aim to decipher the meaning behind these communications and explore the societal-level correlations between what is being said and group actions."

[...] "One of the intriguing aspects of our research is that it parallels the hypothetical scenario of contacting alien species. It's about understanding a species with a completely different environment and communication protocols, where their interactions are distinctly different from human norms," says Pratyusha Sharma, an MIT PhD student in EECS, CSAIL affiliate, and the study's lead author. "We're exploring how to interpret the basic units of meaning in their communication. This isn't just about teaching animals a subset of human language, but decoding a naturally evolved communication system within their unique biological and environmental constraints. Essentially, our work could lay the groundwork for deciphering how an 'alien civilization' might communicate, providing insights into creating algorithms or systems to understand entirely unfamiliar forms of communication."

Journal Reference:Sharma, P., Gero, S., Payne, R. et al. Contextual and combinatorial structure in sperm whale vocalisations. Nat Commun 15, 3617 (2024).

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