Killer Whales Learn How to Speak Dolphin

Orcas that have been socialized with dolphins mimic the sounds they make.

Killer whales are smart; that we know. Here's a thing that might tip them into "scary smart" territory: they can learn the language of another species.

Orcas that were socialized with bottlenose dolphins started making similar sounds as the dolphins, with more clicks and fewer longer calls, according to a study by 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.

Does this mean that killer whales have language, in the way that we understand it? It's known that orcas communicate in so-called dialects, complex vocalizations comprised of clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. And whales that live together in the same pod use the same sounds to communicate, according to a press release.

"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.

Bats, some bird species and cetaceans, which includes whales and dolphins, have all exhibited vocal learning. Scientists know quite a lot about songbirds, since their small size makes it easy to study their brains and neural pathways, the press release said.

But, understandably, the sheer size of ceteceans makes it hard to study how they vocalize and learn. And since many ceteceans are under threat by habitat loss, global warming and human activities like commercial fishing, it's more important than ever to find out more about them, according to the release.

"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 world's oldest orca, affectionately known as "Granny" and an estimated 103 years old, paid a visit to the waters off Washington state on May 9 alongside her 25-member pod, "J-Pod." The sighting was a treat for the tour guests of Captain Simon Pidcock's Ocean EcoVentures. Pidcock took the chance to capture Granny in this series of photos.

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The grand dame and J-Pod for the majority of the year patrol the waters between the north coast of British Columbia and Northern California.

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Pidcock said Granny was instantly recognizable by her saddle patch, a white area whales have on their dorsal fins.

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J-Pod was reportedly seen about one week earlier in an area off Northern California -- some 800 miles away from this appearance. This leaves whale watchers feeling confident about the shape Granny is in, if she can make such amazing journeys.

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Granny's birth year designation of 1911 derives from her size, the size of her offspring, and comparison photos of the senior-citizen orca from as far back as the 1930s. She was caught once in 1967, but she was released because her age was a bit long in the tooth for sea park life. Who could have imagined that 47 years later she would still be alive and thriving?

Granny's 103 years are about twice the age of the oldest orca in captivity (Lolita, in the Miami Seaquarium, is 50). "It surprises people when they realize this whale was around before the Titanic sank. She's lived through fishing changes and live captures of whales. I would love to know what she thinks," said Pidcock. Photos courtesy of Simon Pidcock and

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