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

Flipper Backlash

Dolphins’ Dark Side May
Have a Familiar Twist: Us

In the Gulf of Mexico, they are among the species most affected by the catastrophic oil spill that BP caused two years ago. Pink bottlenoses found in the Amazon river are also facing dire consequences from illegal mining pollution and other man-made hazards to the forest basin. And they’re still being hunted all over the world for the high value their meat is worth in the black market.
But there was an area where dolphins were still unbeatable: the court of public opinion. No longer.
But it’s not that they’ve dropped off the endangered species list. Or mass beachings, such as the one that’s just happened in South America have somehow waned. Dolphins, as it turns out, are so smart that even their messy social interactions remind us of wise guys behaving badly. Some are calling it the dolphin mafia mentality. Who knew?
You may say that there’s a backlash going on against dolphins, and that’s all their own doing. But this is, of course, an anthropomorphic and reductionist view of a species that, apart from breathing air and raising their young on milk, has very little to do with us. Except for the way they relate to each other, though, and social bonds are a reliable way to study any species.
Cetaceans, with their big brains and sophisticated social networks, connected by bloodlines and sexual partnerships, do resemble humans and other highly intelligent land mammals. Chimpanzees, elephants, canines and, whenever it’s convenient, even some feline species, Continue reading