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Breaking communication barriers critical for animals too

link Sharna Johnson

Local columnist

It’s a natural thing that happens almost without conscious thought — the line between things that makes them different tends to blur and disappear over time.

Take for instance language, individual words and slang, accents and even the way words are emphasized or tone of voice. When cultures are mixed together such things start to blend and before long, people start changing the ways they communicate in the interest of getting along and getting things done.

Called vocal contextual learning, the ability to learn and apply sounds in the correct social context is something that leads to language and something humans do all the time, however learning and adapting vocal communication isn’t something humans hold the market on.

Few things show sincerity like making the effort to learn another’s language, and if imitation is the height of flattery, some birds are nothing less than groupies.

People often love it, amused and fascinated by birds that learn and imitate human speech, even if it is just the novelty of hearing their own words repeated back at them by a feathered observer.

But animals imitate each other too, and growing evidence suggests they learn from and find ways to communicate with other species when they find themselves living in mixed social situations.

While for some animals, vocal communication is just something they’re born doing, it’s long been known that social groupings of killer whales have unique dialects, much the same way human communities develop regional or unique accents — an indication their communication is learned from one another after birth.

However, taking that a step further, researchers recently found that when housed with bottlenose dolphins, killer whales began learning and adapting their sounds to match those of their new companions.

A team of researchers studied killer whales at three facilities that had been or were currently housed with bottlenose dolphins and recorded the sounds they made. Their vocalizations were then compared with those of killer whales that had only been housed with other killer whales.

What researchers discovered was the killer whales that lived with dolphins changed their vocalization and had learned and adopted the sounds made by the dolphins, communicating through the clicks and whistles typical of dolphin communication, rather than using the pulsed tones of their own species.

As further proof the whales were picking up the language of their roommates, one of the female whales even began repeating a unique chirping sequence trainers had taught a dolphin she was housed with prior to their being placed together in the facility where the study was conducted.

While the study didn’t gauge the success of communication between the two species, it showed conclusively that they are trying to communicate.

As habitats are changed both naturally and by humankind, creatures such as killer whales often find themselves living in mixed-species communities and the fact that whales are capable of, and, actively learning the sounds and communication patterns of other species is certainly intriguing.

And, researchers speculate, it is possibly one of the keys to their survival, helping them navigate the currents of change in their world.

Apparently the orcas, like most humans, understand that breaking through communication barriers is a critical first-step in getting along, because no man — or for that matter, whale — is an island.

Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at: [email protected].