A beluga whale living in captivity with a pod of bottlenose dolphins learned to communicate using their unique “language.” Detailed in a new study published in the journal Animal Cognition, the extraordinary inter-species communication breakthrough demonstrates the well-documented ability of beluga whales to accurately imitate sounds of other species. This mimicry extends even to humans, as was the case with Noc, the beluga whale studied by the US Navy in the 1970s who was observed making human-like sounds. Although it can’t be confirmed whether or not the beluga whale actually understands the meaning of the dolphin sounds, her ability to shift her own communication style demonstrates the social sophistication and intelligence of cetaceans.

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At first, the cohabitation arrangements were not originally an easy transition for the cetaceans. “The first appearance of the beluga in the dolphinarium caused a fright in the dolphins,” wrote researchers Elena Panova and Alexandr Agafonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. However, after only two months of living with dolphins, the beluga whale featured in the study began using dolphin sounds. The team of scientists recorded 90 hours of vocalizations, data through which the researchers were able to identify that the beluga whale began to use the signature whistles of each individual dolphin, unique sounds that may function similar to names.

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Although the beluga whale was eager to fit in with her new family, the dolphins did not similarly adapt their “language.” “The inspection of the audio recordings made before and after the beluga’s introduction revealed that the cross-species imitation was not reciprocal,” wrote the researchers. “While the imitations of dolphin whistles were regularly detected among the beluga’s vocalizations, we found only one case in which the dolphins produced short calls that resembled (but were not identical in physical parameters) those of the beluga.”

Although the beluga may not be able to understand the sounds it is using, it is nonetheless an important example of a phenomenon known as call convergence. “The case reported here, as well as other instances of imitation and whistle sharing in dolphins described in the literature, may be considered as vocal convergence between socially bonded individuals – a phenomenon that can be seen in various vocal species, from birds to humans,” wrote the researchers. “With some exceptions, call convergence is suggested to provide recognition of a group and strengthening of social bonds between its members.”

Via Science Alert

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