Orca whales, commonly called killer whales, are apparently even more intelligent than originally thought. According to a new study published in the October issue of The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, orcas can learn to speak the distinctive clicking and whistling dialect that Bottlenose dolphins speak as well as their own pulsed call whale language.
Of note, just two years ago, another study showed that dolphins imitate the sounds of their larger whale cousins.
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Proof orcas are capable of vocal learning
The study was undertaken by University of San Diego grad student Whitney Musser and Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute senior research scientist Dr. Ann Bowles. The research examined the vocal repertoires of 10 captive orcas, three of which lived solely with bottlenose dolphins and the rest who lived in a social group with their own kind.
Of the 1551 vocalizations the seven social orcas made during the period recorded, over 95% were the pulsed calls of the killer whale language. On the other hand, the three orcas that lived with the dolphins whistled and regularly emitted dolphin-like click and buzzes, according to the research. This new study clearly demonstrates that orcas are one of the few species of animals that are capable of vocal learning. A few other animals such as dolphins, bats and some birds have demonstrated vocal learning ability.
Statement from lead researcher
“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,” lead researcher Ann Bowles explained.
“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 noted. “And where killer whales go, we can expect other small whale species to go — it’s a broader question.”