If you suddenly found yourself in a foreign country, how long would it take you to start speaking their language?
Beluga whales and dolphins are two species, which communicate through calls, just like birds or humans. Social animals such as dolphins must communicate with each other for bonding, mating, and group activities, such as hunting and migrating.
One beluga whale has shown the amazing ability of “learning” the language of another species! This captive beluga whale was moved to a dolphinarium in Russia, where its only companions were dolphins. In the beginning, the beluga whale continued to make beluga calls, but after two months of living with dolphins, she started making dolphin whistles instead of beluga calls!
Researchers of the Russian Academy of Sciences recorded and carefully studied the vocalisations of these animals in the dolphinarium. They found that the beluga whale had learned how to make the dolphins’ signature whistles – unique whistles assigned to each dolphin, sort of like names.
We cannot say if this beluga whale really learned the dolphin “language”. However, learning how to mimic the sounds of the dolphin language from listening to her new housemates is truly an impressive feat in brain plasticity and learning.
Although our brains are very different, studying the brains of communicative animals (such as songbirds) can help us understand how the human brain learns language. Specific questions about speech and language that scientists are trying to answer include: what environmental factors are crucial for learning language, what changes occur in the young brain when a baby learns to speak, what happens when an adult learns a second language, what is the purpose of language in vocal animals, and many more!
Click here to see the original article on interspecies communication. This article requires paid access, but you can download the audio file for free (under “Supplementary material”) to hear the beluga whale make dolphin calls.
Try our Brain Size module to look at the brains of different animals, including the dolphin!
Written by Christina
Edited by Sylvie and Suna