Why do sperm whales trumpet?

Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) produce several complex and fascinating sounds; the so-called “trumpet” is among the most mysterious ones, emitted at the beginning of the dive and apparently performed only by males. Tethys’ Cetacean Sanctuary Research project has recorded more than 200 trumpets by 86 different individuals in over 20 years of activities in the Pelagos Sanctuary (NW Mediterranean); in a scientific paper recently published by Scientific Reports the authors analyzed this large dataset to investigate its acoustic characteristics and the ecological context of emission in an attempt to understand its significance.

Trumpets were first recorded in the Mediterranean in 1996 by the CIBRA-UNIPV team, and during the 1999-2008 SIRENA cruises of NURC in La Spezia; later on they have been detected on a regular basis by Tethys’ CSR project during their visual an acoustic monitoring activities, showing that this sound, although rare and still mysterious, is a common and constant component of the acoustic repertoire of the sperm whale. The article, authored by researchers from the Sapienza University of Rome, the Tethys Institute and the University of Pavia, and puts forward some intriguing hypotheses on what its meaning could be.

Pace, D.S., Lanfredi, C., Airoldi, S. et al. Trumpet sounds emitted by male sperm whales in the Mediterranean Sea. Sci Rep 11, 5867 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-84126-8


Sperm whale trumpets are sounds only occasionally documented, with a well recognisable and stereotyped acoustic arrangement. This study investigated the acoustic features of the trumpets and the context in which these sounds were recorded, using acoustic data collected over 22 years, in the Pelagos Sanctuary area (North-Western Mediterranean Sea). Analysed trumpets (n = 230), recorded
at the beginning of a dive after the whale fluke-up, comprised a series of acoustic units organized in short sequences. Acoustic parameters were derived for the entire trumpet and for each distinguishable unit in a trumpet. Overall, trumpet durations and their initial frequencies were higher in recordings collected when multiple whales were visually or acoustically detected in the observation area. The identity of 68 whales was assessed through photo-identification, with 29 individuals producing trumpets within and between years. The variability of the acoustic parameters appeared to be higher within the same individuals rather than between different individuals, suggesting an individual plasticity in composing and arranging units in a trumpet. Different click patterns were observed before and after the trumpets, with more complex sequences when (1) other whales were visually/ acoustically detected, and (2) individuals were in suitable foraging sites (i.e., canyon areas). Trumpets were commonly followed or preceded by click patterns suited for communication, such as codas and/ or slow clicks. Significant relations between the trumpet emission and the male-only long-range communication click pattern (i.e. slow clicks) emerged, supporting the hypothesis that a trumpet is a sound emitted by maturing/mature males in feeding grounds. This study provides the first evidence that trumpets were conserved in the sperm whale acoustic repertoire at the decadal timescale, persisting across years and individuals in the same area. This persistence may be functionally specific to foraging activities performed by males in a well-established feeding area.