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."