Depending on where you’re from, you may speak the same language as someone else, but with a slight accent or dialect that sets your speech apart from that of others. But did you know wild animals can exhibit similar forms of speech variation? Indeed, this characteristic isn’t unique to humans; in fact, it could be more widespread in the animal kingdom than we know.
Not long ago, a team of researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) observed comparable vocal mannerisms in short-finned pilot whale communities off the coast of Hawaii while studying the local short-finned pilot whale community by boat and recording their calls with underwater microphones.
Image Credit: Amy Van Cise, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Their findings, published this week in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, align with the results of a previous 15-year study in which the same researchers discerned that all the short-finned pilot whales in the region were either closely or distantly related to one another.
"These groups of pilot whales all use the same habitat. The fact that they have different vocal repertoires means that they're purposely not associating with each other," explained study lead author Amy Van Cise.
"It's sort of like if you've got hipsters and prep kids in the same high school—each group has different slang. They identify themselves with certain speech to maintain that separation."
While some of the whale calls sounded alike, others were slightly different. As it would seem, the calls that sounded alike originated from closely-related whales in the community, while those that differed came from distantly-related whales in the community.
The researchers reached this conclusion after cross-referencing the call recordings with genetic samples collected during the last study and with samples collected throughout the new research.
"That let us effectively make a map of vocal repertoire that we could superimpose onto a map of the whales' social structure," she added.
"If two social groups sound similar to each other acoustically, that likely means that they're communicating with each other regularly, using similar habitats or hunting grounds and foraging habits. This gives us a better sense of the social ties between whale groups."
According to the researchers, their study was a step forward in understanding the cryptic social ties among short-finned pilot whale communities; this is particularly important given just how little we know about the species, and should conservation needs ever arise for the species, perhaps understanding their communication methods will prove vital.
It should be interesting to see what other whale-related endeavors the researchers will take on in the future. After all, it seems to be their forte.