We've known for many years that dolphins and whales use complex communication systems. But can one species learn the language of another? One study found that orcas can change their vocalizations to imitate dolphins. That's right — they pretty much learned to speak dolphin.
Lots of animals vocalize, but not many are capable of what researchers call vocal learning. Vocal learning is the ability to imitate new sounds and use specific ones correctly in different situations. Bats, cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and some birds are capable of vocal learning.
Orcas may be advanced vocal learners. They may be able to learn and use not just the sounds of their own species, but of other species as well.
How Orcas Communicate
Orcas communicate using a combination of clicks and whistles and pulsed calls, which are calls that alternate between short sounds and silence, kind of like Morse code. The video above shows a pod of orcas communicating with each other.
What's fascinating about orca language is that each pod seems to have its own dialect. The duration, pitch and pulse pattern of orca vocalizations varies depending on the pod.
Orcas Learn to Speak Dolphin
California researchers studied a group of three orcas that had lived with bottlenose dolphins for several years in a marine park. They recorded the sounds these orcas made and compared them to the sounds made by seven control orcas that had never lived with dolphins.
The researchers found the orcas that lived with dolphins changed their vocalizations to match their roommates'. Dolphins usually use more clicks and whistles to communicate, whereas orcas use more pulsed calls. However, the three orcas living with dolphins used more clicks and whistles.
One orca in the experimental group even learned a chirp sequence that the one of its dolphin roommates had learned from a caretaker. The caretaker had taught the dolphin the sequence before the whales arrived.
Can Dolphins Also Speak Orca?
It's unclear why the orcas were the ones to adapt their speech patterns to those of the dolphins, and not the other way around. One possible explanation is that orcas have a greater ability to incorporate new information into their brains. They may also be more motivated to socially conform.
However, this does not eliminate the possibility that dolphins could also change their speech patterns to imitate orcas, given the right circumstances. We still know relatively little about cetacean communication, so more surprising discoveries are sure to come in the future.