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Program summary 

The importance of acoustic communication cannot be underestimated, especially in the marine environment. Marine and terrestrial animals use auditory communication in a myriad of ways and they are vulnerable to human-made noise. HSWRI bioacousticians are working to understand how noise affects animals and how these effects can be mitigated.

Conservation impact 

We live in a world of over six billion humans. Even in remote places like the open ocean or mountain forests, animals cannot escape contact with our noise, our vehicles, our artifacts, and our invasion of living space. We don't yet understand very much about the challenges these interactions present to wild animals. But, we do know that we can help prevent population-level impacts if we know how species at risk use sound and what they can tolerate. Hubbs bioacoustics team members are finding ways to use sounds as a tool to warn people in vehicles away from sensitive animals, or help animals avoid dangerous artifacts like nets. We're figuring out what animals can hear and finding ways to strategically minimize noise impact. We're also working to understand sound production-communication- which tells us about animal societies, a key factor when populations are in decline. This knowledge is the legacy of the HSWRI Bioacoustics Laboratory.


 (San Diego CA, April 17, 2014)– A team of scientists from Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI) and SeaWorld San Diego has provided the strongest evidence yet that killer whale dialects are learned.  Published this week in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the study found that juvenile male killer whales are capable of learning new call types when they undergo a change in social association.

Killer whales have vocal repertoires that scientists call ‘dialects’ because they’re composed of calls unique to particular social groups. Discovering how whales develop these dialects hasn't been possible in the wild because of the inherent challenges in tracking an individual whale’s vocalizations and behavior regularly and for extended periods of time.

The HSWRI study took advantage of the unique habitat at SeaWorld that was outfitted with multichannel video and eight hydrophones.  This environment allowed the researchers to record and analyze the calls made by individual whales over a five-year period.

Working with whales at SeaWorld San Diego, Dr. Ann Bowles (HSWRI Bioacoustics Program Leader and corresponding author) and her team studied shifts in vocal behavior and social association using a unique experimental condition: exposure to more than one dialect.

Bowles studied six killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego. Four shared a common dialect of Icelandic lineage, including the dominant female, her son, and a juvenile male companion. Two other adults, a male and a female, had different dialects.  The research team analyzed individual call repertoires and social associations of the whales during two periods.  For each pair of whales, the team compared the overlap in repertoire with a measure of association, the proportion of time they elected to swim together. 

In the second study period, changes in the study population (including a new calf born to the dominant female) resulted in an adventitious experiment in social change.  Afterward, the dominant female’s son and his young male companion started
associating more with the unrelated adult male, whose dialect differed from theirs.

“By the end of the second study period, both of the juveniles were using calls that were new to them from the dialect of the older male,” Bowles says. "The adult male’s ‘dialect’ was unique. We don’t know how he acquired his unique calls, but based on our observations we can say that the juveniles must have acquired them through learning rather than, say, as a matter of genetics." 

This research also demonstrated that the juvenile males acquired their new calls after they started associating with the adult male, suggesting that learning was stimulated by the social change. The next step will be to evaluate other age-and sex-classes for evidence of changes in vocalizations with changes in association. "Truthfully, we're just taking the first baby steps in understanding how individual whales learn and who they learn from at various stages in their lives," says Bowles.

There are deeper implications of this study. Learning whether social association affects the calls of killer whales sheds important light on how wild populations of whales interact. Scientists still don’t know if and how populations of killer whales can merge. The data
from this study give clues about how that might occur. 

This project is part of a long-term effort to understand vocal development in killer whales. The research formed part of a master’s thesis project at the University of San Diego for one of Dr. Bowles’ students, Jessica Crance, the lead author, who is now a Research Biologist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. Alan Garver, curator of animal training for SeaWorld San Diego, also participated in the study.

Read this publication here.


Unraveling the mysteries of animal communication and the effects of human-made noise on animals

Dr. Ann Bowles, Ph.D.
Program Leader