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Killer Whales Learn How to Speak Dolphin

Stashed in: Whales!, Communication, Under the sea!, Dolphins

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Holy smokes, this is amazing!

Killer whale vocalizations include clicks, whistles and pulsed calls that sound like short spurts of sound followed by silence. However, the duration, pitch and pulse pattern varies across pods, suggesting each whale group has a unique dialect.

"There's been an idea for a long time that killer whales learn their dialect, but it isn't enough to say they all have different dialects so therefore they learn," study researcher Ann Bowles, a senior research scientist at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Carlsbad, California,said in a statement. "There needs to be some experimental proof so you can say how well they learn and what context promotes learning."

The researchers found the perfect creature for the experiment. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) produce sounds that are similar to those of killer whales, but they make them in different proportions. For instance, dolphins make more clicks and whistles, whereas killer whales produce more pulsed calls.

"We had a perfect opportunity, because historically, some killer whales have been held with bottlenose dolphins," Bowles said. Killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family.

She and her team collected sound recordings from three killer whales that had been housed with bottlenose dolphins for several years, and compared them with sounds collected from seven killer whales and control bottlenose dolphins, which had not commingled.

Essentially, the killer whales that interacted with the bottlenose dolphins had a higher proportion of clicks and whistles, and a lower proportion of pulsed calls than the control whales did.

Killer whales can also learn entirely new sounds, the researchers found. One killer whale living alongside dolphins learned how to make a chirp sequence that a human caretaker had taught the dolphins before the whale's arrival.

The killer whales' vocal learning abilities don't necessarily mean that cetaceans have language in the same way that humans do, the researchers said. But the whales' skills do indicate a high level of neural plasticity, meaning their brain circuits can change to incorporate new information.

"Killer whales seem to be really motivated to match the features of their social partners," Bowles said. 

Killer whales socialize!!

They're helping each other!

These marine animals may have an advantage if social bonds are tied to learned vocalizations from other species, the researchers said. Such a bond could help the animals survive amid different territories and social groups, they said.

"It's important to understand how they acquire [their vocalization patterns], and lifelong, to what degree they can change it, because there are a number of different [cetacean] populations on the decline right now," Bowles said. "And where killer whales go, we can expect other small whale species to go."

That's amazing. So killer whales are as intelligent as bottleneck dolphins.

...makes me wonder if dolphins are as smart as us; we just don't speak their language. 

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