Whales might not have opposable thumbs or manipulative digits, but they do rival human beings when it comes to brainpower. Multiple studies on various species of whale have determined that they're incredibly intelligent — perhaps even smarter than we are — and one hallmark of their genius is the way they communicate. Whales talk to each other using patterns of clicks called codas, and a new study suggests those codas vary significantly depending on which ocean a whale is from. In other words, patterns of communication between whales vary depending on what region they inhabit: Just like people, whales have accents.
The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, specifically looked at communication between groups of sperm whales living in the Caribbean off the island of Dominica. Since male sperm whales are fairly solitary and therefore don't constitute the best source material for a study about communication, Dr. Shane Gero, the study's lead author and a researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark, only examined calls among pods of female whales and their young offspring. (Gero had already spent eight years studying this particular group of whales, so he was about as familiar with their social groupings as possible — he recorded their calls for six of those years, amassing one of the largest samples of whale calls to date.)
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So, it turns out some whales have regional accents
** FILE ** In this Jan. 23, 2005 file picture, a humpback whale leaps out of the water in the channel off the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii. The number of endangered humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean has dramatically increased to more than 18,000 over the last 40 years, according to a new study. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 15: A Humpback whale in mid lunge, feeding on Bunker off NYC's Rockaway Beach on September 15, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Artie Raslich/Getty Images)
A Humpback whale jumps out of the waters off Juanchaco on Colombia's Pacific coast, Wednesday, July 15, 2009. Every year between June and November, Humpback whales undertake seasonal migration from the Antarctic Peninsula to the equatorial coast of Colombia to breed, feed and rest. (AP Photo/Christian Escobar Mora)
SEA OF CORTEZ, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO - 2015/02/20: Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) slapping the pectoral fin on the water in the Bahia de La Paz, Sea of Cortez in Baja California, Mexico. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A humpback whale jumps at a whale watching point, off Okinawa, southwestern Japan, Tuesday, March 25, 2008.(AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)
This Sept. 7, 2005 photo released by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a humpback whale diving among an aggregation of short-tailed shearwaters in Cape Cheerful, near Unalaska, Alaska. The federal government is proposing removing most of the world's humpback whale population from the endangered species list. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries announced on Monday, April 20, 2015 that they want to reclassify humpbacks into 14 distinct populations, and remove 10 of those from the list. (Brenda Rone/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via AP)
FILE - In this July 11, 2008 file photo, a trio of humpback whales break the surface of the water as they work together in a group behavior known as "bubble feeding" off the coast of Cape Cod near Provincetown, Mass. The federal government is proposing removing most of the world's humpback whale population from the endangered species list. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries announced on Monday, Apr. 20, 2015 that they want to reclassify humpbacks into 14 distinct populations, and remove 10 of those from the list. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Seagulls fly past the fluke of a submerging humpback whale as it feeds on schools of fish at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Cape Cod near Provincetown, Wednesday, July 9, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Humpback mother and calf.Baja Coast MexicoThe 2 whales were swimming along the Baja coast of Mexico, in the Pacific Ocean just outside Cabo
Humpback whale calf with mother shot in Vava'u Tonga in clear water. Sun is sparkling on the whales back.
Pod of humpback whales Maui, Hawaii at sunset.
Water pours off the tail of a humpback whale as it dives at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts, Tuesday, April 28, 2009. Temperatures in the Boston area were unseasonably warm, shattering previous records well over 90 degrees in the region. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Gero and his team analyzed those calls by categorizing them according to the number of clicks and the time interval between each click. They identified a total of 21 call types, but two of those types made up 65 percent of all calls recorded. Apparently every whale, no matter its social group, performed these two types of calls so identically that researchers couldn't tell them apart, even using computers. What's more, these two types of calls have "dominated repertoires in this population for at least 30 years." They concluded that the persistence of these two types of calls — which aren't evident in, say, Pacific whale populations — mean they've been culturally transmitted over generations. Their data also showed that juveniles and calves produced a wider variety of coda types, which supports the theory that a standardized coda is something they learn over time.
Gero contrasts the sperm whales' regional coda with other calls they make: variable individual calls and shared family calls. The fact that there are so many layers of complexity in sperm-whale communication jibes with something called the social complexity hypothesis, which predicts that species with more complex social structures will also have more complex methods of communication.
Whether or not whale communication is as complex and varied as human communication is impossible to say. No matter how much time people like Gero spend studying whales (and he spends a lot of time studying whales), the truth is that unless we learn to speak whale, their rich inner lives will remain a mystery to those of us stuck on dry land.