Although belugas commonly learn to imitate other species, for the first time ever a beluga whale is recorded giving up its own language in order to speak to its dolphin companions.
A four-year-old beluga whale went to live in the Koktebel dolphinarium in Crimea, with no other belugas around to talk to, only dolphins. Belugas are regarded as the “canaries of the sea” due to the high-pitched whistling sounds they make. Dolphins communicate using a variety of whistles and clicks.
A scientist recorded the beluga in a solitary tank upon arrival to the dolphinarium. Two months after the whale’s introduction to the facility, she began imitating the dolphins’ whistles. The beluga had made up an entirely new array of whistles and vowels, including trademark dolphin noises. Researchers have assimilated more than 90 hours of audio of the beluga imitating dolphin whistles.
Although the dolphins have not yet returned the beluga’s interest with some of her own sounds, on one occasion researchers have recorded the dolphins making a short call that somewhat resembled a beluga whale. The most shocking part of the story? As the beluga began making more and more dolphin sounds, she began to lose the capacity to make some sounds of her own.
Cetaceans are highly intelligent animals and belugas, in particular, have been remarked for their capacity to imitate species around them, including humans. However, this is the first documented case of a beluga giving up its own language in order to better blend in with the companions around her — and speak their language in exchange.
The findings are published in the science journal Animal Cognition.
Here’s a video of a beluga whale mimicking human speech: