Vocal learning has been a subject of research in the fields of acoustics and social science for many years. Over time, findings have proven positive in some types of birds, bats, and cetaceans including whales and dolphins. Research by avian scientists has identified specific neural pathways in the brains of songbirds, allowing for a scientific explanation for the ability of adaptation, but until now, information on larger marine mammals has been difficult to obtain.

Killer whales communicate similarly to humans in that they form distinct patterns of dialect within their specific social groups. Repeated patterns of sound using complex vocal clicks, whistles, and pulsed sounds in variations of pitch, duration, and pulse vary depending on the social community the whale has been exposed to.

In a recent study published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, University of San Diego students demonstrate definitive findings that killer whales (Orcinus orca) are in fact able to adapt to new social behavior and demonstrate a high level of neural plasticity by obtaining new information through a changing of circuits in the brain. This particular study was easily accessible due to the fact that historically bottlenose dolphins have been held in confinement with killer whales. The direct exposure of killer whales to bottlenose dolphins in this type of living situation allowed for a unique cross-species social pattern adaptation. The distinctly interesting factor was that the dolphins in this case were communicating using chirp sequences taught to them by their human caretakers.

Findings in this study helped explain the high level of adaptation of killer whales and their motivation to match their social environment. The ability for the whales to build social ties will continue be studied further as it pertains to the whales’ ability to survive despite the threat to their species.

If you have questions about acoustics or studies in the field, contact our team at CENSEO AV+Acoustics today!


photo: treehugger, source: ScienceDaily


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