Orcas who spent time around bottlenose dolphins learned to imitate their famous clicks and whistles, a new study finds, further demonstrating the depth of killer whales’ intelligence and social complexity.
Killer whales are among the few animals on Earth capable of vocal learning, or the ability to pick up new vocalizations by imitating someone else’s. It’s the basis for language, and it lets pods of killer whales — aka orcas—develop “dialects” that are likely passed down from generation to generation.
According to a new study, though, killer whales don’t necessarily stop at imitating each other. They’re also capable of learning a different species’ language, the study’s authors found, mimicking the clicks and whistles of bottlenose dolphins after spending time around them.
Just six groups of animals are known to use vocal learning: parrots, songbirds, hummingbirds, bats, cetaceans and humans. Countless others vocalize, but their sounds are almost always innate, not learned. Many also use auditory learning to make associations with sounds, like a dog learning how to respond to the sound “sit.” Only true vocal learners, however, can say “sit” after hearing it.
While orcas don’t speak English yet, they apparently can speak bottlenose — albeit with an accent. They’re actually a type of dolphin themselves; their ancestors are thought to have branched off from other oceanic dolphins several million years ago. All dolphins belong to a group of cetaceans known as toothed whales, as opposed to larger, filter-feeding baleen whales like humpbacks.
Normal orca communication is already elaborate, including clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. These vocalizations vary across pods and social groups, resulting in local dialects, but they’re all still distinct from the calls made by other dolphins. And since a vocal-learning test typically requires placing animals in a novel social setting — thus prompting them to communicate in new ways — orcas who have spent time with bottlenose dolphins are in a unique position to reveal the depth of their species’ social skills.
Visit this page to read the full article.