Communication: Every species’ strongest means of survival

For generations humans have believed that they are the most advanced species worldwide. With a continually evolving language and complex vocal communication abilities far beyond any other species, humans have come a long way from the cave men and women that roamed the earth over 20, 000 years ago. As humans evolved and adapted to their environment, so too did their communication systems. Studies have found that other species, while not as complex as humans, have also formed similar communication abilities. Although many believe that non-human primates would follow after humans as the most socially advanced species, they lack a flexible vocal communication system. On the other end of the spectrum, birds model an extremely flexible sound production system, yet they lack the social skills that are seen as the main driving force in the evolution of human speech (Complex call sequences in social whale communication n.d.). However, there is increasing evidence to show that many marine mammals, specifically dolphins and whales, have high intellectual abilities, participate in a number of social interactions and are flexible in sound production. For example, matrilineal whales including the Orcinus Orca, commonly known as the killer whale, developed an advanced communication system in response to environmental factors and social interactions between one and another (Complex call sequences in social whale communication n.d.). These communication systems helped many whales adapt to their surroundings and ultimately played a key role in the species’ survival. Therefore, it is evident that communication is a vital part of survival, not just for humans, but also for many other species, specifically including whales. This is apparent through the intricate communication systems whales have created and consequently the effects these systems have on those who have difficulty following social protocols, as well as the devastating effects artificial marine noise has on whale communication.

The sophisticated way in which whales converse clearly indicates the importance of communication for the species’ survival. Studies have found that whales use sound for a number of different reasons including navigation, detecting food and communication between one another over vast distances (Blue whales and communication n.d). Their use of sound to navigate and detect food is due to the lack of visibility underwater. In many cases, visibility is limited to less than 10 metres, which means that sea creatures cannot rely on sight for survival. Furthermore, as many species of whales including the blue whale are relatively solitary animals, they have devised an intricate way to communicate between each other from thousands of kilometres apart (Wild Whales n.d.). Sound travels roughly five times faster underwater than it does through air and low frequency sounds travel a lot further underwater than high frequencies. Whales have found a way to use these variables to their advantage. By vocalising frequencies as low as 14 Hertz with volumes greater than 180 decibels, whales are able to communicate between each other across entire ocean basins (Wild Whales n.d.). The frequency at which they communicate is well below the ability of human hearing, which in the past has made it difficult for researchers to follow communication patterns. However with new technology, humans are beginning to discover more about the loudest animals on the planet (Blue whales and communication n.d). The sounds that whales articulate are often referred to as songs because some of the patterns are often repeated (Khamsi, R 2006). These songs often last for thirty minutes at one time (whale song 2008). While humpback whales are generally the only breed of whale that participates in these songs, many other whales use similar methods to communicate. Over time, whales have clearly evolved and adapted to their environment and social tendencies by using sound as a means of communication and navigation, ultimately bettering their chances of survival.

However there are some instances where certain whales are unable to follow these important communication protocols. In one such case, a whale has been named the world’s loneliest whale due to its unique sonic signature. For 24 years, researchers have been closely tracking the whale’s location and migration patterns. The whale communicates at a frequency of 52 Hertz, which is grossly higher than the usual vocalisation of 15-20 Hertz of most whales (Norrington, B 2013). Researchers have been unable to identify the species of the 52-Hertz whale as its call patterns resemble that of neither blue nor fin whales, two of the more likely species that it could possibly be (Norrington, B 2013). In a report conducted by researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 12 years after the whale was first identified, it was stated that: “We do not know the species of this whale, whether it was hybrid or an anomalous whale that we have been tracking”(Daher et al. 2004). While no one has yet to set eyes on the whale, many people across the globe have listened in on its unusual frequencies. The 52- Hertz whale has become a worldwide sensation, with thousands of people sympathising and even relating to the loneliest whale in the world (Jamieson, L 2014). Some devotees have even set up mock twitter accounts, while others have written songs about the whale. Josh Zeman is currently working alongside actor Adrian Grenier on producing a film about the 52-Hertz whale. The documentary, called ’52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World’ was set to be a success until Zeman’s funding fell through earlier this year (Jamieson, L 2014). While his progress is at a standstill at this point in time, Zeman is still tracking the whale vehemently and is likely to continue his film in the near future (Jamieson, L 2014). While the whale is a sensation with humans, it is still very much alone in the whale world because its communication system is so different to that of its species. Yet Dr. Kate Stafford, a researcher at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, told the New York Times that there was plenty of evidence to show that the whale was healthy. She stated, “The fact that this individual has been capable of existing in that harsh environment for at least these 12 years indicates that there is nothing wrong with it” (Revkin, A 2004). Although, while the whale appears to be healthy, many worry that because of its unusually high vocal frequencies, it will never find a mate and thus remain the loneliest whale for the entirety of its life.

Unfortunately, there are also artificial noises that jeopardize whales’ communication systems and ultimately, their survival.  Due to the global trade and cruise industry, an abundance of large and extremely noisy ships regularly interfere in many whales’ environments (Daley, B 2012). Large ships produce sound levels of over 170 decibels and even smaller fast traveling boats can produce levels of 145 to 160 decibels (Wild Whales n.d.). As whales communicate using similar volumes, the excess amount of noise lends to confusion for all breeds of whales and, unfortunately for some like the right whale, possible extinction. Studies have found that the increase of ships in some regions has resulted in whales losing roughly two thirds of their ability to communicate with one another compared to 50 years ago (Daley, B 2012). Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary marine ecologist Lelia Hatch said, “Whales rely on their ability to hear far more than their ability to see… Chronic noise is likely reducing the opportunities to gather and share vital information that helps them find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young” (Daley, B 2012). Hatch also noted that the bubbles from ship propellers are the loudest sounds to drown out whale calls (Bragg, M 2012). North Atlantic right whales are already one of the world’s most endangered large animals and with a population of approximately 350 to 550 animals, are close to becoming extinct (NOAA: Underwater noise decrease whale communications in Stellwagen Bank sanctuary 2012). The added artificial noise pollution created by humans is not favouring the right whales’ chances of survival. Director of Cornell University’s bio-acoustics research program, Christopher Clark, explained that the noise from shipping traffic is making it difficult for right whales to hear each other most of the time. “Basically,” he said, “The whales off Boston now find themselves living in a world full of our acoustic smog” (NOAA: Underwater noise decrease whale communications in Stellwagen Bank sanctuary 2012). The International Maritime Organisation is currently working on guidelines to reduce ship noise in an attempt to lessen the noise transferred to the water and consequently the whales. If this issue is not combated swiftly, the range over which whales can locate each other will rapidly decrease, potentially having devastating effects on the species’ population (Clark et al. 2007). Without their regular deep water communication channels, there is a possibility that certain species of whales may not survive in the future.

Ultimately, communication has always been the key to a species’ chances of survival. While human communication is continually evolving and becoming more complex, many other species are forming similarly sophisticated communication systems. Dolphins, whales and other sea mammals are an example of such species and have shown signs of high intellectual and social abilities, as well as flexible sound production systems. It is evident that whales in particular have formed communication systems that increase their chances of survival in their environments. This is evident through the detailed communication channels they have created and the unfortunate effects that such channels have on those who are unable to follow these social protocols, similar to the 52-Hertz whale. Additionally, the negative effects artificial marine noise has on the lives of whales indicates how immensely the species relies on communication for survival. Therefore it is clear that communication is a vital part of survival, not only for humans, but also for many other species, including whales.


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