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By Mihai Andrei
Killer whales are smart, we already know that; they're also really scary. But
a new study has shown that they are actually scary smart - up to the point
where they can learn the language of another species.
Killer whales are actually a species of dolphins found in all oceans, from the
frigid Arctic and Antarctic regions to tropical seas. They have extremely
diverse diets and can adapt to what the local environment can provide. Killer
whales are notable for their complex societies. Only elephants and higher
primates, such as humans, live in comparably complex social structures. Due to
the fact that they have complex social bonds, many scientists have argued that
it is not humane to keep orcas (as they are also called) in captivity.
Killer whales have the second-heaviest brains among marine mammals, after Sperm
whales. They are known to teach their offspring and to imitate other creatures.
They also have advanced communication skills. The killer whale's use of dialects
and the passing of other learned behaviours from generation to generation have
been described as a form of animal culture.
"The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of
killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and
represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties" - a 2001 Cambridge
Talk like a Dolphin
In this new study, orcas who were familiar with bottlenose dolphins started
making similar sounds to the dolphins, with more clicks and fewer longer calls;
basically, they started to mimic the bottlenose dolphin language. This could
indicate that orcas have their own language and dialects, University of San
Diego graduate student Whitney Musser and Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute
senior research scientist Dr. Ann Bowles published in The Journal of the
Acoustical Society of America suggest. More proof is needed however.
"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. There needs to be some experimental proof so you can say how well they
learn and what context promotes learning," Bowles said.
Considering orcas have different dialects and even express different cultural
behavior from one population to another, it seems entirely reasonable (and
remarkable) that they are able to learn the language of another cetacean. The
fact that they have similar vocal chords also helps in this aspect. However, the
fact that they are larger makes it more difficult for them to vocalize.
But why do they do this? It's still not clear. Researchers are currently more
interested in to the how of the story:
"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 populations on the decline right now," Bowles said. "And where killer
whales go, we can expect other small whale species to go - it's a broader
The Killer whales of Eden, Australia
This story has nothing to do with the study I described above, but I think it
paints a good picture on how adaptable orcas really are. The killer whales of
Eden, Australia were a group of killer whales known for their co-operation with
human hunters of other whale species. Basically, for one orca generation (about
90 years, from 1840 and 1930) they were seen near the port of Eden in
The killer whales would find target whales, shepherd them into Twofold Bay, and
then alert the whalers to their presence and often help to kill the whales. The
whalers would come in, kill the whales, and then allow the orcas to feed off the
whales before the whalers brought the whales in. The leader of the orca group
was called Old Tom; he would alert the human whalers to the presence of a baleen
whale in the bay by breaching or tailslapping at the mouth of the Kiah River.
The unique behaviour of killer whales in the area was recorded in the 1840s by
whaling overseer Sir Oswald Brierly in his extensive diaries. It was discussed
in many scientific circles and described in many scientific studies. While
co-operative hunting between humans and wild cetaceans exists in other parts of
the world, the relationship between whalers and killer whales in Eden appears to
be unique. What's interesting is that the initiative for this cooperation came
from the orcas - not from humans. It's not clear how they came up with this idea
or how they developed this behavior, but it highlights once again that killer
whales are able to develop long-standing relationships with other species - even
some as different as humans.
By Mihai Andrei
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he published his first scientific
paper when he was still an undergrad; now, his main focus is on how geology and
geophysics can be applied to understand and protect the environment. Feeling
that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME
Science - and the results are what you see today.