When killer whales mingled with bottlenose dolphins, they were able to learn to communicate, finds a new study.
From barks to gobbles, the sounds that most animals use to communicate are innate, not learned. However, a few species, including humans, can imitate new sounds and use them in appropriate social contexts. This ability, known as vocal learning, is one of the underpinnings of language.
University of San Diego graduate student Whitney Musser and Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute senior research scientist Dr. Ann Bowles found that killer whales (Orcinus orca) could engage in cross-species vocal learning: when socialize with bottlenose dolphins, they shifted the types of sounds they made to more closely match their social partners. The results suggest that vocal imitation might facilitate social interactions in cetaceans.
Killer whales have complex vocal repertoires made up of clicks, whistles and pulsed calls-repeated brief bursts of sound punctuated with silence. The acoustic features of these vocalizations, such as their duration, pitch and pulse pattern, vary across social groups. Whales that are closely related or live together produce similar pulsed calls that carry vocal characteristics distinct to the group, known as a dialect.
Bottlenose dolphins provide a useful comparison species in testing vocal learning ability: they make generally similar sounds but produce them in different proportions, relying more on clicks and whistles than the pulsed calls that dominate killer whale communication.
By comparing old recordings of vocalization patterns from the cross-socialized subjects with recordings of killer whales and bottlenose dolphins housed in same-species groups, Bowles and her team were able to evaluate the degree to which killer whales learned vocalization patterns from their cross-species social partners.
All three killer whales that had been housed with dolphins for several years shifted the proportions of different call types in their repertoire to more closely match the distribution found in dolphins-they produced more clicks and whistles and fewer pulsed calls. The researchers also found evidence that killer whales can learn completely new sounds: one killer whale that was living with dolphins at the time of the experiment learned to produce a chirp sequence that human caretakers had taught to her dolphin pool-mates before she was introduced to them.
Vocal learning skills alone don't necessarily mean that killer whales have language in the same way that humans do. However, they do indicate a high level of neural plasticity, the ability to change circuits in the brain to incorporate new information.
There are immediate reasons to study the vocal patterns of cetaceans: these marine mammals are threatened by human activities through competition for fishery resources, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with vessels, exposure to pollutants and oil spills and, ultimately, shrinking habitats due to anthropogenic climate change. If their social bonds are closely linked to their vocalizations, killer whales' ability to survive amidst shifting territories and social groups may be tied to their ability to adapt their communication strategies.
The article is published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.