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Aussie boffins translate whale chat

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Aussie boffins have been eavesdropping on our underwater cousin the humpback whale, and think they've managed to decode a bit of what the swimming mammals are saying to each other.

According to Reuters, the researchers have clearly identified the sounds of a mother issuing a warning to her calf, and of a male trying his luck with the ladies. The team identified plenty of other sounds, some of which seem to have multiple meanings, but found that others, like the warning and the come-on, were much more specific.

The University of Queensland researchers were working as part of the Humpback Whale Acoustic Research Collaboration (HARC) project. They conducted the research over a three-year span, tracking the whales as they travelled along the east coast of Australia.

They recorded the whale chat on microphones attached to buoys along the coast. In total, the researchers recorded 660 sounds from 61 distinct groups of whales. From these, they identified at least 34 separate types of calls, more than three times the number they were expecting.

Researcher Rebecca Dunlop told the news agency: "I was expecting to find maybe 10 different social vocalisations, but in actual fact found 34. It's just such a wide, varied repertoire."

She added: "Its quite fascinating that they're obviously marine mammals, they've been separated from terrestrial mammals for a long, long, long time, but yet still seem to be following the same basic communication system."

Dunlop said that an amorous male making advances towards a female made a purring sound, while a mother warning of danger emitted a high pitched "wop" noise. High-pitched wails and screams indicated males disagreeing over who should escort which female, Dunlop said, adding that the arguments got quite loud. ®

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