Sperm whales may use clicks as a phonetic alphabet, study shows

Scientists studying the sperm whales that live around the Caribbean island of Dominica have described for the first time the basic elements of how they might be talking to each other, in an effort that could one day help better protect them.

Like many whales and dolphins, sperm whales are highly social mammals and communicate by squeezing air through their respiratory systems to make strings of rapid clicks that can sound like an extremely loud zipper underwater. The clicks are also used as a form of echolocation to help them track their prey.

Scientists have been trying for decades to understand what those clicks might mean, with only minimal progress. While they still don’t know, they now think there are sets of clicks they believe make up a “phonetic alphabet” that the whales can use to build the very rough equivalent of what people think of as words and phrases.

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