Beluga Living with Dolphins Swaps Her Calls for Theirs

By Elizabeth Preston | October 20, 2017 12:43 pm


In November 2013, a four-year-old captive beluga whale moved to a new home. She had been living in a facility with other belugas. But in her new pool, the Koktebel dolphinarium in Crimea, her only companions were dolphins. The whale adapted quickly: she started imitating the unique whistles of the dolphins, and stopped making a signature beluga call altogether.

“The first appearance of the beluga in the dolphinarium caused a fright in the dolphins,” write Elena Panova and Alexandr Agafonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. The bottlenose dolphins included one adult male, two adult females and a young female. But the animals soon got along, er, swimmingly. In August 2016, one of the adult female dolphins gave birth to a calf that regularly swam alongside the beluga.

The researchers were curious about what the new pool-mates were saying to each other. Dolphins are famously chatty animals. Their sounds include echolocation clicks and “signature whistles,” calls that are unique to each dolphin, kind of like names. Belugas, though, are vocal virtuosos. In addition to their rich repertoire of squeaks, squeals, and other calls, they can imitate other animals and people. One captive beluga developed such a good impression of human speech that it fooled a person diving in its tank. (Here’s another link to the audio.)

Panova and Agafonov have been studying the acoustic communications of animals in the dolphinarium since 2010. Immediately after their beluga arrived, they made sound recordings of the whole group swimming together. Two months later, they led the beluga into a separate pool for a few dozen brief recording sessions. They made more recordings nine months after that, for a total of more than 90 hours of audio.

In the beluga’s first days in the dolphin pool, she gave “calls typical for her species,” Panova and Agafonov write. She made squeaks, vowel-like calls, and particular two-toned sounds that seemed to be her “contact calls.” Similar to dolphins’ signature whistles, these are the sounds belugas make to check in with others in their group. Mother and baby belugas use contact calls to keep track of each other, as do belugas that are friends or relatives.

But at her two-month recording session, the beluga was performing some new numbers. She still made her own whistles and vowel sounds, but she’d added calls that resembled the signature whistles of the three adult dolphins in her group. She also made whistles that all the dolphins shared. And she seemed to have dropped her beluga contact calls altogether.

At her later recording session, the beluga’s repertoire was unchanged. Panova and Agafonov say it’s “disappointing” that they didn’t capture earlier recordings of the beluga on her own, because they might have discovered her imitating the dolphin whistles even sooner than two months. In another study, they write, an adult beluga imitated a sound the first time it was played.

Panova points out that while other studies have found belugas imitating sounds such as human speech, birdsong, and computer-generated noises, this beluga is imitating sounds that could actually help her communicate with the animals around her. The beluga, finding herself alone, may have been especially motivated to join the dolphins’ social group. “This case may be an interesting example of interspecies communication,” Panova says.

Image: Shutterstock/Andrii Zhezhera

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Intelligence, Ocean
  • TLongmire

    “This case may be an interesting example of interspecies communication,” Logically speaking what difference should it make that different species can communicate vs individuals of the same species?

    • Rob Neff

      Well, how well can you communicate with other species? We can tell when a dog is in pain vs. wanting to play, but other details are hard to understand. And we’re supposedly the most intelligent species on the planet, so if we have trouble understanding the speech of another species, it is a big deal if a whale is better at it than we are.

      • TLongmire

        I understand animals on a more innate level than I do other people. If you know something it is conveyed to another mind if it is aware. Other life forms are conscious in their own way and react to the outside world and especially to intelligent minds when engaged.

      • JohnnyMorales

        And how do you know the whale did a better job.

        You seem very willing to assume everything in regard to the whale, while simultaneously refusing to do the same for humans and/or dogs.

        And it is an assumption. Nowhere in the article is the notion that Whales are better at this than humans expressed or implied. 😉

        About the only assumption that can justifiably be made about the Beluga’s abilities is that they far exceeded the low expectations of the researchers.

        • Malk

          Perhaps he knows more than is contained in this one article. Sadly, we have not been able to learn to communicate with dolphins in their own language. Whilst this article does not make clear whether the Beluga is just imitating, or whether she is using the language effectively, other instances of interspecies communication between cetaceans indicate that they are able to understand certain concepts between species. Look up the instance when Moko, a dolphin in New Zealand, was able to convince two pygmy sperm whales to follow her out of the shallows where they were trapped. She was able to rapidly get them to follow her: something the would-be human rescuer was not able to communicate to them.

          • Malcolm J. Brenner

            I know, and that incident with Moko impressed me very much!

          • yetanotherbob

            You assume that dolphins have a ‘Language’. They do communicate by sounds, but they also see using those same sounds. That opens many possibilities for communication and education beyond the use of words..

          • Malk

            Its a bit more than an assumption at this point. Captive cetaceans have no trouble learning syntax when we teach them a form of sign language. We have no rationale for why they would have this ease with syntax if they are not using language. Also, it is not exactly correct to say they see and communicate with those ‘same sounds’ – scientists differentiate between echo-location clicks, and coda clicks in sperm whales for instance.

      • Cecilia Johnston

        Exactly. My husband was living in a small village in Spain for 20 years and has never learned to speak Spanish or Valenciano, which is what the locals speak. I had to study hard to learn the lingo. It is a big deal! What a clever whale!

      • Richard Schiller

        people are intelligent who wish to be intelligent, otherwise it is typical for people to be stupid (in a stupor)

      • KNRover

        Given some of the things we do (and don’t do!), I long ago started questioning the premise that humans are at the top of the intelligence chain. In addition, while our intellect is extremely broad, other species have higher intellect in some areas. For example, how do some dogs know an hour or more before a person is going to have an epileptic seizure? It has been determined that dogs are FAR more observant of other species’ behavior and can convey to a human subject that something is about to happen.

        • yetanotherbob

          Dogs can smell it. They are sensitive to body chemicals. They also can diagnose things like diabetes and for that matter stroke as well as some other maladies by the smell. Emotions too have charastic smells. That’s why they know if you are afraid of them They can smell it.

          • Maia

            Likely true.

    • Malcolm J. Brenner

      You aren’t impressed or surprised by the fact that a beluga can learn to speak like a dolphin? You try it some time, I have, it can be an interesting learning experience, and I’m sure if you’re nice to them, the dolphins will be willing to teach you.

      • Elaine Elder

        Or at least than you for all the fish

      • Richard Schiller

        i have a tendency to force my language on others than learn theirs. My cats KNOW what it means when i say yum yums or go outside. Although they have more tendency to respect the alarm door announcer (“front door”) than me. They race when it says “Back door”. They ignore cats on YouTube or TV yet hunted thru the whole house when i said Hey Google what does a kitten say.

  • jonathanpulliam

    Many years ago, one of my youngest sister’s young Sunday school classmates came to our house after their class had been to the New England Aquarium on some sort of outing, and this kid was excitedly relating how one of the seals had talked to him ( at that time there were Harbor Seals there , allowed out of doors in a sort of moat. ) I said what do you mean the seal talked to you? ( Ben was about six as I recall, and he straightaway shot back : “Hey, kid”, the seal came up looked at me and said “Hey, Kid”. Well long story short I thought it was one of those things kids’ll say and thought no more of it until about a week later the Boston Globe newspaper ran an article about how one particular harbor seal at the New England Aquarium was indeed talking to people rather regularly.

  • Dean Ware

    No matter what we learn from this situation it is still the case that it is cruel to the creatures we keep in these tanks. Dont go to these tanks or promote them if you care about other sentient creatures.

  • vrm

    “…one of the adult female dolphins gave birth to a calf that regularly swam alongside the beluga…”

    Maybe the calf is a belphin or doluga.



Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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