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Over the past 4 years, a four-year-old captive beluga whale has adapted to living and communicating with dolphins. She had been living in a facility with other belugas until she was moved to a new pool shared with only dolphins in the Koktebel dolphinarium in Crimea. The beluga adapted to her new home quickly, learning how to imitate dolphin whistles as opposed to her usual beluga calls.
At first, the dolphins were skeptical of the new visitor in their pool. The bottlenose dolphins included one adult male, two adult females and a young female. The animals eventually got used to each other’s company, with one of the newborn dolphins finding a particular liking to the beluga, often found swimming right by its side.
Dolphins are known for their unique communications calls consisting of echolocation clicks and signature whistle calls. Belugas share similar sounds to that of a dolphin with their squeaks, squeals and other calls. They are also vocal virtuosos, meaning they can imitate other sounds, animals, and people. One captive beluga even mastered an impression of human speech, fooling one of the divers.
Elena Panova and Alexandr Agafonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow have been studying the acoustic communications of animals in the dolphinarium since 2010. They made sound recordings of the dolphins and beluga swimming together, then separately recorded the beluga in her own pool 9 months later.
When the beluga was first introduced to the dolphin pool, she gave “calls typical for her species,” Panova and Agafonov recalled. She made squeaks, vowel-like calls, and particular two-toned sounds that seemed to be her contact calls. Belugas normally use these sounds to check in with others in their group, communicate with friends or relatives, and keep track between mothers and their calves.
Just two months in, the sound recordings picked up new sounds coming from the young beluga. She still made her own whistles but added signature sounds that resembled those of the adult dolphins she has come so familiar with. The beluga also made whistles that all of the dolphins shared seems to have stopped all beluga calls. Panova and Agafonov noted their regret for not recording the beluga’s sounds earlier, as she could have been communicating in the dolphin’s dialect much earlier. Some belugas have been known to imitate a sound the very first time they hear it.
Beluga whales are extremely smart animals and can use their echolocation to imitate sounds like human speech, birdsong, and computer-generated noises. In this study, the beluga adapts to imitating sounds that help her communicate with the animals around her. It is a perfect example of interspecies communication.