Acoustic communications between beluga whales

Acoustic communications between beluga whales

5 February 2013

Specialists from the Institute of Oceanology have been studying acoustic communications between white or beluga whales for over 30 years. Yelena Panova, an academic fellow from the Institute of Oceanology, discusses various stages of the work to study how these animals communicate with each other.


The description of the vocal "repertoire" of various white whale populations in the European Arctic and in the Far East forms the basic stage of this work. Scientists describe various signals, measure physical parameters and compile sound catalogues.


The next stage consists of efforts to study the functions of signals, their meaning and purpose. This work is quite difficult because it is hard to interpret the behaviour of animals in their natural surroundings. Scientists can only see the backs of the whales on the surface, and often only from a long distance. Consequently, it is impossible to say anything concrete about the actions of specific whales. Moreover, it is impossible to determine what whale is making specific sounds, and addressed to whom, because the hydrophone detects multiple sounds from a group of animals, which often includes dozens of whales. As a result, one can currently only talk about general sound-use trends. It is possible to determine what sounds are used to maintain long-range contact, what sounds are used over short distances, and what sounds are presumably used by individual whales to identify themselves. And, of course, there are sonar signals enabling dolphins to identify various objects around them by assessing the reflected echo signals.


Next, scientists compare sounds generated by various beluga whale populations. The sounds emitted by beluga whales vary from population to population. This can probably be explained by their prolonged mutual isolation.


It is known that the acoustic channel of cetaceans is their leading data "transceiver". Moreover, eyesight is less important for cetaceans, because it is often very hard to see anything over long distances in murky waters. The vocal "repertoire" of beluga whales includes several dozen diverse types of sounds.


But how do beluga whales learn to "speak"? Do they have this ability from birth, or do they start "speaking" at a certain age, the way humans do? It turns out that many cetaceans lack the innate ability to emit signals. Rather, the whales learn these signals when they are between several months and one year old. Beluga whales are primarily taught by their close relatives, mostly their mothers. Actually, cetaceans, including beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins and killer whales, have a talent for imitating sound signals. They can imitate the signals of their fellow cetaceans as well as completely alien sounds, including the whistles of their trainers.