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 study concluded.
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 question.”
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 southeastern Australia.
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.