Elizabeth Preston at Inkfish has a super blog post up about a beluga whale that was recorded mimicking the sounds of human speech. It concludes with the most excellent line that “to whales, humans sound like the Swedish chef”. Go check it out and, listen to the sound and then come back. I’ll wait….<whistles>…..back? OK great. Now, when I said “Swedish chef”, those under 30 may not have had a clue what I was talking about (its a muppet thing), so here – get edjumukated:
Its fantastic that Noc was recorded making these sounds and that they found their way into the published literature, because for many who care for marine mammals on a daily basis, mimicry is one of those tantalising behavioural things that can blow your mind about animals. It suggests that they can recognise sounds and their components enough to reconstruct the sound and replay it to you. Even if it’s not communication, it sure feels like communication. I mean, think about mimicry in light of this scene:
I was so fascinated by the Inkfish post that I called the best marine mammal trainer I know – my wife Patricia – and asked her about experiences with marine mammals mimicking noises, based on her experiences at several different marine mammal facilities during her career. She gave the following three examples:
1. She once worked with a dolphin that would imitate the sound of a SCUBA regulator. This was a noise that the animal experienced frequently, as divers shared their exhibit space for cleaning and maintenance. She once told me that she thought her dive buddy was right next to her but when she turned there was the dolphin tilting his head and making the sound. Not only did this animal make the SCUBA noise, but he would accompany it by slowly sinking to the bottom while blowing periodic bursts of bubbles, just like a descending diver. Is this just fun imitation, or maybe mockery? Its hard to know, but it’s tantalising.
2. On one occasion she heard a beluga whale imitate the sound of a distant jackhammer from a street maintenance crew.
3. Another marine mammal trainer relayed an experience of hearing a beluga whale imitate the squealing of train wheels pulling into a station.
We often think of dolphins as the supreme underwater communicators, but belugas whales surely have them beat. Some folks have called them “canaries of the sea”, but I’ve never heard a canary imitate a jackhammer, a SCUBA regulator, a train or human speech. Perhaps we should call canaries the “belugas of the air”.