Researchers at MIT CSAIL and Project CETI, using machine learning, have identified a structured sperm whale ‘alphabet’ in their vocalizations, revealing that codas—series of clicks with linguistic functions—are part of a complex, newly discovered combinatory coding system, marking a significant advancement in understanding cetacean communication. (Source: Image by RR)

Groundbreaking Study Identifies Musical Elements in Sperm Whale Vocal Patterns

Researchers from MIT CSAIL and Project CETI have made significant strides in understanding sperm whale communication by potentially decoding what could be described as a sperm whale “alphabet.” using advanced machine learning technologies. Their study, titled “Contextual and Combinatorial Structure in Sperm Whale Vocalizations,” explores the complexities of codas—specific series of clicks used by sperm whales, revealing that these are not arbitrary, but form a sophisticated coding system with variations that had not been described before.

This research, as reported in, builds on the foundational work of Roger Payne, a renowned marine biologist known for his studies on humpback whale songs, who inspired the team to apply cutting-edge technology to deepen human understanding of cetacean communication. Utilizing a dataset of 8,719 sperm whale codas collected near Dominica, the team employed machine learning to analyze and better understand these vocal patterns, marking a departure from traditional methods that studied codas in isolation.

By examining the codas within their contextual interchanges among whales, the researchers identified what they call a phonetic alphabet for sperm whales, applying musical terms such as tempo, rhythm, and rubato to classify these sounds. This new approach allowed them to view the codas as a complex combination of elements that, while individually meaningless, can form larger meaningful units—akin to how syllables form words in human language. This discovery suggests that sperm whales might possess a communication system that exhibits the linguistic duality of patterning, a characteristic previously thought to be uniquely human.

Despite the groundbreaking nature of these findings, the researchers acknowledge that much work remains. They plan to continue their focus on sperm whales due to the extensive data available and the structured nature of their communication, which is easier to analyze than more fluid systems. The insights gained could eventually extend to other species, such as humpbacks, further exploring the structured elements within their songs that suggest a complex, non-random communication system.