New research into the mathematical properties of whale songs reveals that they have a complex language:
The songs of the humpback whale are among the most complex in the animal kingdom. Researchers have now mathematically confirmed that whales have their own syntax that uses sound units to build phrases that can be combined to form songs that last for hours.
Until now, only humans have demonstrated the ability to use such a hierarchical structure of communication. The research, published online in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, offers a new approach to studying animal communication, although the authors do not claim that humpback whale songs meet the linguistic rigor necessary for a true language.
"Humpback songs are not like human language, but elements of language are seen in their songs," said Ryuji Suzuki, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) predoctoral fellow in neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and first author of the paper.
This research is important because it brings us one step closer to someday being able to decode whalesongs and eventually even communicate with whales. In the long-term it may also contribute to the development of general techniques for interspecies language translation -- techniques that could someday come in handy if and when we start to interact with extraterrestrial species.