Do animals have accents?

Written by on May 13, 2016 in Marine Life, Whales & Dolphins

A few studies have suggested that cows and monkeys have regional accents, and that songbirds of the same species learn different songs based on where they were raised. But how about under the sea? Do whales and dolphins have regional dialects or accents?

A humpback whale and its calf in NOAA's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary

A humpback whale and its calf in NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Photo credit: NOAA.

Whale speech is undeniably amazing. The songs of humpback whales can last up to 30 minutes, and some individuals sing for hours at a time. Dolphins are no less impressive. They call each other by name and can remember those names, even if they haven’t seen each other for 20 years. They also speak to each other while trying to cooperatively solve problems. And don’t forget orcas! Recent research shows that orcas can learn to speak dolphin. It’s all pretty incredible.

But do all bottlenose dolphins sound the same? Do all sperm whales, no matter how far apart from each other, sing songs that sound the same? The short answer is: no. Some cetaceans have accents based on where they live.

Individual accents

A 2011 study from Dalhousie University found that sperm whales make patterns of clicks to each other called “codas,” that have unique meanings. By studying these codas, researchers found that the whales could tell which member was speaking based on the sound properties of the coda, so basically, each individual pronounced the codas a little differently. They compared it to the way our friends speak — we know who is speaking from the sound of their voice, and they may say some words differently than you (the way I say “rahther” as if it rhymes with bother, and everyone else I know says “rAther” that rhymes with lather). Learn more about it here.

Regional accents

A study published earlier this year (about the same group of whales from some of the same researchers) found that sperm whales also have regional accents. Using the codas identified years before, the researchers were able to determine that Caribbean sperm whales use some sound patterns that aren’t used anywhere else. Learn more about it and hear some of the sounds here.

A different 2016 study found that pilot whales also have different dialects. A team of researchers followed six different groups of long-finned pilot whales and found that specific sounds varied more between different groups than within groups. Learn more about it here.

Long-finned pilot whale.

Long-finned pilot whale. Photo credit: Danielle Cholewiak, NEFSC/NOAA.

So what?

All of these communication studies are important not just for better understanding these animals, but also for conservation efforts. As noise pollution in the ocean increases, it’s important to understand all that we an about the way these animals communicate. Additionally, being able to identify whales by sound could help with determining critical habitats that require additional protection.

Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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