Vocal communication and cognition in cetaceans

Vincent M. Janik

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Vocal communication and cognition in cetaceans

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  • Linguistics
  • Language Evolution
  • Cognitive Linguistics


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This article gives an account of vocal communication and cognition in cetaceans that comprise aquatic mammals. Cetacean communication occurs primarily in the acoustic domain. Light scattering and absorption leads to very limited visibility underwater while the sense of olfaction is virtually absent. The males of most baleen whale species produce long, elaborate song sequences during the breeding season. These appear to keep other males away and attract females. The song of the humpback whale has a hierarchical structure and is the most complex one among whale songs. It consists of phrases that are made up of multiple elements. The patterns of change in the song of humpback whales demonstrate clearly that these animals are capable of vocal learning, a relatively uncommon trait in mammals. All males in a population sing the same song at any one time, but the song of the population changes over the singing season. The bowhead whale has a simpler song but changes song in synchrony similarly to humpback whales. The songs of other baleen whales are much simpler and often consist of only one to three elements that are repeated in long song sequences. Bottlenose dolphins and several other dolphin species produce individually distinctive signature whistles that develop early in life. These can remain stable for at least a decade and, in the case of females, most likely for their entire lives. Signature whistle development is influenced by vocal learning, with dolphins copying and modifying aspects of other animals' whistles to develop their own unique frequency modulation pattern.

Keywords: vocal communication; cognition; cetaceans; signature whistle; vocal learning; pulsed vocalizations

Article.  2811 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Cognitive Linguistics

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