Plan Author

Amber Claxton, 2015

Project Description

Whalespeak: Vocal communication in cetaceans and its role in speciation

Outside Evaluator

Jessica Cuni, Choate Rosemary Hall

Sample Courses


All cetaceans rely heavily upon acoustic communication. Unsurprisingly, no two species sound the same. If they did, their vocalizations would not serve its purpose: to communicate information to conspecifics. Differences in vocal communication between cetaceans has likely promoted speciation and is why we can enjoy such a large and diverse array of complex sounds from cetaceans. This Plan explores adaptations for acoustic communication, and the potential role of cultural evolution in the vocalizations of several species, as well as an analysis of temporal changes in the song structure of humpback whales in the Caribbean.


There are at least four hypothetical mechanisms by which culturally inherited sounds can lead to reproductive isolation and eventually speciation. Firstly, the cultural imprinting of these dialects could be strong enough that mating would not occur between individuals from different cultural groupings. However, strong cultural imprinting could result in two different outcomes in terms of mate choice. On the one hand, if dialect indicates relatedness, cetaceans may choose to mate with individuals of a different dialect to reduce inbreeding. On the other hand, other shared cultural traits could act as a “cultural badge” that encourages mating within the cultural group by determining who an individual socializes and mates with. It has been shown that female songbirds often have a preference for local dialects, which may lead to reproductive isolation and eventually speciation.

My relationship with my materials forces me to think of the entirety of their narrative. What have they been and what will they be? In this light, I cannot help but realize that my materials and I are one and the same, found in different shapes through the happenstances of the earth. Life-forms can only exist through the passage of energy from the death of another life-form. We come from each other, we are made of each other, and we are decidedly a part of each other. This concept mystifies and paralyzes me. This work is my attempt at understanding what the balance life and death require of each other, and documents my puzzling reactions to the circular nature of our existence.


Growing up in the south on the coast, and an early passion for music led to my study of the songs of whales. My art evolved out of this as a reaction to inspiring landscapes, travel, and a desire to feel at home.

Plan was a “rollercoaster experience” involving a circular mix of feeling very tired and feeling accomplished. I like knowing so much about whales, and I’m sure to keep making art in my life.  Maybe these things will resurface someday as my primary interests.