Stories tagged Information theory

Mar
27
2006


Humpback Whale: A Humpback Whale dives beneath the surface Courtesy NOAA

Scientists Ryuji Suzuki, John Buck, and Peter Tyack used information theory to prove that humpback whale songs have syntax--rules that govern the structure of language.

Like humans, the whales use a hierarchy of communication: they make sounds to build phrases that they can combine in different ways to create songs that last for hours.

The scientists wrote a computer program that breaks down the elements of the whales' songs (moans, cries, and chirps) and assigns a symbol to each one. Then they analyzed the structure of the songs.

Suzuki says,

"Information theory was the right choice because it allows one to study the structure of humpback songs without knowing what they mean."

Sight and smell are limited in marine environments, so sea mammals often use sound to communicate. During the humpback whale breeding season, all the males in a population sing the same song. And the song evolves over time.

Suzuki says,

"Humpback songs are not like human language, but elements of language are seen in their songs."