Eerie Impersonation

A Captive Beluga May Have
Learned to Mimic Our Speech

Whales are smart. Or so we’ve been told since we began studying them, instead of killing them, in the 1960s. But a lot of the initial assumptions about cetaceans’ intelligence was based on brain size, and that’s no longer a reliable indication of cognition, scientists say.
Still, self-centered as we are, we’re always impressed when animals begin to sound like humans. The latest example is Noc, a San Diego Beluga whale, whose haunting speech-like pattern, a few octaves lower than his normal ‘voice,’ has been recorded and is all over the Web.
The recording was made by a National Marine Mammal Foundation team of researchers, as part of an online study published on Current Biology. It sounds like the animal was mocking his human handlers, but that’s reading too much in what’s essentially a mimicking exercise.
It took Noc some 16 years to produce what was caught on tape, something that the much smaller brain of a parrot, for example, would produce in just a few months. Still, it gives anyone pause. But before you grow too attached to the whale, a sad note: he died years ago.
SPEECH OR PARROTING?
For the record, cetaceans are indeed intelligent in ways we don’t quite comprehend, and communicate mainly by sounds through long distances in frequencies we can’t hear. Just like elephants and other Continue reading

The Saddest Song

The Loneliest Whale in the
Ocean Can’t Find Her Mate

Her voice was first heard in 1989. Oceanographers have been following her songs for two decades. It all indicates that she’s a baleen whale, a subspecies that includes the great Blue, the Fin and the Humpback whales. But there’s something very sad about this creature.
Unlike any other in the ocean, she (or he, no one knows its gender) sings at a 51.75Hz frequency, way above the 12 to 25Hz range of every other whale. It’s a frequency her kind can’t hear and as she ages, her songs are getting lower and lower in pitch too. For comparison, 52Hz is just above the lowest note on a tuba.
A study in 2004 determined that the sounds come from a single animal whose movements ‘appear to be unrelated to the presence of other whale species.’ In other words, she’s always alone and even the migration paths that she follows year after year are unique.
And yet she sings. Her elaborate songs come in groups of two to six calls, lasting for five to six seconds each. But it’s unlikely that this whale will ever mate, which is tragic since cetaceans have such a rich Continue reading