SeaWorld study found young orcas learn new calls from diversity
SAN DIEGO (CNS) – A SeaWorld study released this week found that juvenile
killer whales can learn new calls if placed with other orcas from different
The five-year study by Ann Bowles, bioacoustics team leader at the Hubb-
SeaWorld Research Institute, looked at six whales at the San Diego theme park
and how they communicate with vocal repertoires that scientists call
“dialects,” because they're composed of calls unique to particular social
Four of the whales shared a common dialect of Icelandic lineage, while
the other two used other dialects.
Bowles and her team – their research appears in the Journal of
Experimental Biology this week – studied the dialects and the amount of time
the whales swam together, then placed two young males that used the Icelandic
dialect with an adult male who used another vocal pattern.
“By the end of the second study period, both of the juveniles were
using calls that were new to them from the dialect of the older male,” Bowles
said. “The adult male's `dialect' was unique. We don't know how he acquired
his unique calls, but based on our observations, we can say that the juveniles
must have acquired them through learning rather than, say, as a matter of
Bowles said the research suggests that learning was stimulated by the
social change. The next step will be to evaluate other age-and sex-classes for
evidence of changes in vocalizations with changes in association.
“Truthfully, we're just taking the first baby steps in understanding
how individual whales learn and who they learn from at various stages in their
lives,” Bowles said.
Learning whether social association affects the calls of killer whales
sheds light on how wild populations of whales interact, she said. Scientists
still don't know if and how populations of killer whales can merge.
SeaWorld has pointed to scientific research in fending off attempts by
animal rights advocates to end its “Shamu” killer whale shows. State
legislation, inspired by the documentary “Blackfish,” to prohibit killer
whale shows was recently shelved.
The study formed part of a master's thesis project at the University of
San Diego for one of Bowles' students, Jessica Crance, the lead author, who is
now a research biologist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.