What do you call the flying beetle that lights up summer nights?
Some readers have wondered whether animals have dialects, so Weird Animal Question of the Week is looking at the distinct ways some species “speak.”
A Whale Of A Study
For a recent study, Shane Gero spent six years listening to sperm whales that live in the Caribbean and found codas unique to their regional groups. These sounds may identify individuals and family or social groups—just like first and last names.
Listen to Caribbean sperm whales vocalize.
One click sequence identifies the vocal clan and essentially translates to, “I am from the Caribbean, are you?” says Gero, founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and a research fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark.
As social creatures, whales differ in how they do things like hunt or care for their young. “Behavior is what you do,” Gero says, “Culture is how you do it.”
In that sense, these unique codas may allow Caribbean sperm whales to reinforce their culture and bond with family members, both crucial needs in the vast ocean, he says.
Sadly, sperm whales in the Caribbean are in decline, Gero says, likely from human impacts including pollution.
Calls of the Wild
Few animal sounds resonate with us like the howl.
In another recent animal dialect study, researchers used computer algorithms to analyze 2,000 howls of dogs, coyotes, and various species of wolves, narrowing them down to 21 howl types.
From holding a steady tone to warbling up and down, each species' howl differs, the study found.
Red wolves and coyotes, for example, have howls that vary in pitch, while Arctic wolves howl in the same pitch, study leader Arik Kershenbaum of Cambridge University says via email. (See "Wolves Identified by Unique Howls, May Help Rare Species.")
Conservation can benefit from the findings, he adds. Critically endangered red wolves of the eastern U.S. are hybridizing with wild coyotes, threatening the future of the wolf species.
By comparing similarities and differences in red wolf and coyote howl types, scientists could better manage those populations.
Animal dialects could also show us how our own language evolved, Kerschenbaum says.
Since our closest relatives, the great apes, aren't as good at language, “one of the few ways to examine language evolution is to look at the role that communication plays in other, less related but more vocal, species," Kershenbaum says.
Socially cooperative species like canines are particularly useful, since sociability may have driven the evolution of language. (Related: "Primate Dialects Recorded in South America—A First.")
Some sing so distinctly one can “tell what section of the country a mockingbird is from just by listening to him,” Donald Kroodsma, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, says via email.
You can hear the differences in these samples of two northern mockingbirds, one from Kansas and another from Virginia, on a companion website to Kroodsma’s upcoming book Listening to a Continent Sing.
Now that’s worth tweeting.
Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.