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Are we really about to talk to whales?

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The past decade has seen an explosion of new research into some of the most fascinating sounds in the sea: the vocalizations of whales and dolphins.
The past decade has seen an explosion of new research into some of the most fascinating sounds in the sea: the vocalizations of whales and dolphins.
Scientists have uncovered how humpback whales learn songs from neighboring populations, so that these songs travel from western Australia to South America. They discovered bowhead whales singing 184 different songs over three years, and learned how bottlenose dolphins use signature whistles to shore up alliances.
Researchers have also showed that sperm whale vocal dialects are more different the more they are in contact with each other across the entire Pacific, suggesting these dialects function as ethnic markers. Advancing technology in the form of drones, acoustic tags and recorders mean such insights are accumulating rapidly.
Much of what whales and dolphins signal seems to relate to identity within social contexts. This can include identifying alliance members, or members of long-term social units and clans, or a particular population or species. Vocal communication also builds and reinforces social bonds and coordinates cooperative foraging.
We have also seen the resurrection of an old idea: that hiding behind all these findings is really a human-like language. If we can just find the right tools, the thinking goes, we can decode it and start talking to whales like we talk to our neighbors.
The hottest new tool is AI. Reading some of the press around the topic, you could be forgiven for thinking such conversations are imminent.
Two recent studies stand out for the dramatic claims they make about whale language. One details a humpback responding to the playback of a call with a similar one (but then ultimately losing interest).
This study’s importance was to demonstrate that such playback studies are possible, because playing back an animal’s calls and observing their reaction is a tested method for uncovering the meanings and functions of signals.

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