Communication by Sound and by Visual, Tactile, and Chemical Sensing

  • Peter TyackEmail author
Part of the Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals book series (EBEMM)


Toothed whales use vision, chemical sensing, and touch for short-range communication, but they produce sounds to communicate over ranges of hundreds to thousands of meters. Sperm whales and porpoises communicate and echolocate using click sounds, and many toothed whales may eavesdrop on clicks. Many toothed whale species have two sound sources, one specialized for echolocation and the other for communication. Killer whales can independently modulate low-frequency clicks and a higher-frequency component to make complex communication signals. Dolphins click from the right sound source and produce tonal whistles from the left sound source. Bottlenose dolphins develop an individually distinctive whistle, called a signature whistle, through copying elements of sounds in their natal environment. Dolphins in the laboratory imitate synthetic whistle-like sounds, demonstrating their capacity to learn to produce vocalizations, a skill that is rare among nonhuman mammals. Adult dolphins can imitate the signature whistles of partners for use as a vocal label. These individual-specific labels are suited to the fission-fusion societies of most dolphins, in which group composition may change every few minutes. Killer whales, by contrast, live in stable matrilineal groups. They produce stereotyped calls that change slowly over generations, and a process of dialect formation leads members of each group to share a group-specific call repertoire. The process of call change suggests that killer whales learn to modify their calls based upon listening to other whales, but evidence for vocal learning is weaker than for dolphins. Sperm whales are usually sighted in temporary groupings formed of several more stable social units that may join for several days at a time. Sperm whales communicate with rhythmic patterns of clicks called codas. Codas are believed to have a short enough range to suggest a primary function for communication within a group, perhaps identifying group and individual identity. Social units that share the same coda repertoire are defined as members of the same vocal clan. Social units of the same vocal clan may join one another but joining is rare among sympatric units that have different repertoires, suggesting a role for codas mediating affiliation between units. The same repertoire may be recorded over tens of thousands of km, with the vocal clan comprising tens of thousands of whales. If codas are learned, then vocal clans would represent stable cultural traditions on a grand scale, but evidence for vocal learning is weak in sperm whales. Toothed whales have complex communication systems, but more work is needed to fully understand the role of learning, and we need more detailed longitudinal study of social relationships to fully understand functions of social communication.


Animal communication Contact calls Vocal learning Vocal culture Signature whistle Sperm whale coda Tursiops Orcinus Physeter 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sea Mammal Research Unit, Scottish Oceans Institute, School of BiologyUniversity of St. AndrewsSt. AndrewsUK

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