Animals With Accents

Just like humans, some animal populations have unique ways of speaking that help maintain kinship.

What do you call the flying beetle that lights up summer nights? Whether you say “lightning bug” or “firefly" depends on your dialect, or language specific to an area or social group, and humans aren’t the only ones.

A Whale Of A Study
Sperm whales, which communicate through specifically spaced clicks called codas, are known to have dialects.

Sperm whales in the Caribbean speak with an accent, research shows. [Photograph By Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative]

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.

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.

Red wolves, which have been reintroduced to North Carolina, are hybridizing with coyotes. [Photograph By Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photoark]

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.

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. 

Speech Evolution
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.

Northern mockingbirds have very distinct dialects. [Photograph By Karine Aigner, National Geographic Creative]

Other animals shown to have dialects include rock hyraxes, primates including Campbell’s monkeys, and many birds. 

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.

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