Orca sound discovery made at SeaWorld San Diego - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Orca sound discovery made at SeaWorld San Diego

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - A SeaWorld study released Thursday found that juvenile killer whales can learn new calls if placed with other orcas from different areas.

The five-year study by Ann Bowles, bioacoustics team leader at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, looked at six whales at the San Diego theme park and how they communicate with vocal repertoires that scientists call "dialects," because they're composed of calls unique to particular social groups.

Four of the whales shared a common dialect of Icelandic lineage, while the other two used other dialects.

Bowles and her team -- their research appears in the Journal of Experimental Biology this week -- studied the dialects and the amount of time the whales swam together, then placed two young males that used the Icelandic dialect with an adult male who used another vocal pattern.

"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 said. "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."

Bowles said the research suggests 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," Bowles said.

Learning whether social association affects the calls of killer whales sheds light on how wild populations of whales interact, she said. Scientists still don't know if and how populations of killer whales can merge.

SeaWorld has pointed to scientific research in fending off attempts by animal rights advocates to end its "Shamu" killer whale shows. State legislation, inspired by the documentary "Blackfish," to prohibit killer whale shows was recently shelved.

The study formed part of a master's thesis project at the University of San Diego for one of Bowles' students, Jessica Crance, the lead author, who is now a research biologist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.

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