What Are Killer Whales Saying?

People who are listening to the killer whale calls in my previous posting are asking whether we have any idea yet of the meaning. Answer: not as language, but we do know some things.

What we don’t know: We don’t know if they have words or language. We think they have signature calls (names) and recognize each other. We do know they can hear each other over tens of miles (about 30 miles, though some large whales such as fin and blue whales can hear each other over hundreds of miles).

Language in the strict sense means syntax, which means that word placement determines meaning. So, “Put the blue pillow on the red pillow” means something different than, “Put the red pillow on the blue pillow.” Same exact words, different order. That’s language. Some dolphins and some apes have the ability to understand human syntax.

Killer whales are dolphins—the biggest ones. I am not aware of whether they understand human syntax. I would not be surprised. We certainly don’t have the ability to fully understand them. But—.

What is really incredible about killer whale vocalizing is that researchers can easily recognize which pod they are listening to, even when all they are hearing is their calls coming through the computer, exactly like the audio file I’ve posted. Not only do the pods sound different, but there are groups of pods who frequently interact—called communities—and their calls differ from the calls of other communities.
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Different communities appear never to interact, even though their members might get within a thousand yards of each other at times, and the edges of their overall ranges overlap. (The whales calling in my audio file are from a community of coastal fish-eating killer whales who live in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and extreme southern British Columbia; their pods are collectively called the Southern Residents; there are 3 pods of Southern Residents, just over 80 individuals total).

Across the animal kingdom, vocalization varies enormously. Some other animals, of course, do not vocalize (squid, thousands of others), some make mechanical sounds (crickets, many others), some have a limited series of calls that are easier to understand, such as “I’m here and this is mine,” “I’m here where are you?,” and “danger” (many birds and mammals), and some have very rich repertoires (elephants, apes, whales, etc.). killer whales 3

Many probably have much richer nuances that they understand, but that we miss. A dog “barks” and “whines” and “growls,” but If I am in my house and my dogs are in the yard I can easily tell whether my dogs’ barks mean they are playing, barking at someone passing, or threatening a potential intruder. They don’t just “bark,” and there is much useful information in how they are barking. I sense that this is the tip of a widespread rich vocal iceberg.

If I think about my dogs or animals such as hawks that I’ve worked with, I would say that gesture, routine, familiarity, natural tendencies regarding food-getting, alertness and the ability to understand what’s going on (we might think of this as very high contextual intellect), and a sense of what is doable and what is dangerous, combine to make other animals true professionals in their livelihoods. They know what they’re doing. But the how and why of rich vocal repertoires does still remain very mysterious. Or at least, beyond our current comprehension.
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Perhaps it’s all babble; though that seems unlikely considering how rich and varied the sounds and how much energy they spend vocalizing. Perhaps as humans gained our exceptional skills at syntactical language and its immense powers, we lost the ability to comprehend a different way of approaching and using vocal information. Perhaps each species has its own languages and dialects and we don’t understand because they work differently from ours and from each others’ and it’s much more complex than it seems.

But what seems to be the case is that animals with complex vocal repertoires manage to get a lot of information across without using syntax much, if at all. The same can be said of the interaction between a human and a dog, for instance.

I think that when there is not a species bridge to cross, when the creatures are among themselves with their own families and cultures and appropriate habitats and familiar territories, the amount that gets across is quite rich.

How it gets across, we still don’t know.


Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.