Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization -- Department for Nonlinear Dynamics and Network Dynamics Group
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Complex call sequences in social whale communication

in collaboration with OceanSounds, Norway

(Science, Education, Art and Sustainability)


Humans have evolved a sophisticated language and complex vocal communication abilities considered far beyond those of any other species. High cognitive abilities, a large flexibility in vocal production, and advanced social interactions together constitute fundamental prerequisites to evolve such abilities. Why no other terrestrial mammals have evolved such complex vocal communication remains unknown. Non-human primates, even apes, with their advanced social skills, did not evolve a flexible vocal communication system with the ability to produce previously unestablished sounds. Birds, the main animal model to study speech processes are very flexible in sound production, but they have less social skills, which is seen as the main driving force in human speech evolution. In addition, birds fundamentally differ from mammals in their brain anatomy.


(copyright heike vester /


In contrast, it is known that many marine mammals, specifically dolphins, simultaneously form a variety of social interactions, have high cognitive abilities and are flexible in sound production. Matrilineal whales, in particular killer whales (Orcinus Orca) and long-finned pilot whales (Glophicephala Melas), developed an advanced communication system resulting from intra- and inter-group social interactions and environmental factors. Their vocal repertoires consist of a variety of sounds such as pulsed calls, whistles, clicks and buzzes. There is evidence that two or three sounds are sometimes used in systematic combination and that killer whales may communicate by exchanging vocal signals. How vocal signals are combined and how vocal exchange patterns are organized and used, however, is largely unknown.




We have carried out preliminary studies which suggest a complex temporal organization of pulsed call sequences in both species. In this project, we will develop new methods of nonlinear time series analysis and systematically study complex call sequences and vocal exchange in marine mammals. As calls can be combined in a vast number of ways, standard methods of subjective call classification cannot reveal the full complexity expected from our data.



  (copyright heike vester /


Scientists involved in this project:

Heike Vester

Expert on matrilineal whales and initiator of the project, responsible for data collection and project development


Kurt Hammerschmidt

Expert on behavioural biology and Bioacoustics


Marc Timme

Project leader / Expert in network analysis


Jan Nagler

Project Development


Sarah Hallerberg

Sound analysis, network analysis, technical support for photo-ID-data bases


Wen-Chuang Chou

Sound classification of human vowels


Madita Zetsche

Intern working on photo identification of individual killer whales


Yvonne Radstadke

Intern working on photo identification of individual killer whales


Contact:  Sarah Hallerberg 

Members working within this Project:

Former Members:

 Wen-Chuang Chou (CFAED at TU Dresden) 
 Jan Nagler 
 Marc Timme 

Selected Publications:

H. Vester, S. Hallerberg, M. Timme, and K. Hammerschmidt (2017).
Vocal repertoire of long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) in northern Norway
J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 141(6):4289. download file

H. Vester, H. Kurt, M. Timme, and S. Hallerberg (2016).
Quantifying group specificity of animal vocalizations without specific sender information
Phys. Rev. E 93(2):022138. download file

G. Bertella, and H. Vester (2015).
Whale Watching in Norway Caught Between More Traditional Hunting Canons and the Lucrative Promise of Seismic Airguns
Tourism in Marine Environments 11(1):73--77. download file

H. Vester, and K. Hammerschmidt (2013).
First record of killer whales (Orcinus orca) feeding on Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) in northern Norway suggest a multi-prey feeding type
Marine Biodiversity Records 6:1-5.

A.D. Foote, J.T. Vilstrup, R. De Stephanis, P. Verborgh, S.C. Abel Nielsen, R. Deaville, L. Kleivane, V. Martin, P.J. Miller, N. Oien, M. Perez-Gil, M. Rasmussen, R.J. Reid, K.M. Robertson, E. Rogan, T. Similä, M.L. Tejedor, H. Vester, G.A. Vikingsson, E. Willerslev, M.P. Gilbert, and S.B. Piertney (2011).
Genetic differentiation among North Atlantic killer whale populations
Molecular Ecology 3(20):629-641. download file

H. Vester, and M. Timme (2010).
Call for cooperation to contain damage by Chile’s salmon farms
Nature 465:869. download file

H. Vester, L.P. Folkow, and A.S. Blix (2004).
Click sounds produced by cod (Gadus morhua)
J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 115:914. download file