Monica and Michael Sweet—Getty Images/Flickr RF
By Justin Worland
September 9, 2015

Whale researchers and enthusiasts have long known about the loud clicking sounds made by the marine mammal to communicate. Now, new research shows how whales at different spots around the globe communicate with different variations of the sound, an analogue to human dialects.

Researchers tracked groups of whales during a series of 2 to 4–week trips between 1985 and 2003, recording both images and sound. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggests that the dialects emerged as a result of cultural learning similar to the processes that humans undergo.

These experiences and differences play a key role in the formation of culture and differentiate one group from another, according to the study. Still, the difference in dialects confounded researchers given the lack of physical barriers in the ocean.

“Providing evidence that the processes generating the complex and diverse cultures in human populations could also be at play in non-human societies is a crucial step towards evaluating the contrasts and convergences between human and non-human cultures,” researchers wrote.

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com.

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