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Dialects are a part of how we communicate, but it also turns out that many animals have dialects depending on what part of the world they live in.

Hosted by: Hank Green

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[Intro music]

[Hank] Depending on where you live, you might have a cookie on the elevator, or you might have a biscuit on the lift. These are examples of dialects: different versions of the same language, like British and American English. Dialects are a common part of communicating and it turns out that that is true in the animal world too!

Even though animals don’t have languages, they do communicate. And that communication seems to have dialects that work in ways remarkably similar to the way our human ones do. Researchers have studied these animal dialects to help discover new species, improve conservation efforts and even understand more about how human languages evolved.

   Phonological Syntax (00:40)  

Because animals don’t use words, their dialects are variations of what scientists call “phonological syntax.”

Here’s how this works: take a word, like “hello.” You could say “hello” has more of a function than a meaning. You use these two syllables to greet other people. But even though it’s only the verbal equivalent of waving your hand at somebody, the order of those syllable sounds still matters, and “llohe” does not paint you as someone nearly as friendly to others as “hello” does.

And that’s how animal dialects play out. They don’t have words, but the pattern of vocalizations still has meaning. And the animals don’t carry dialects in their genes. Just like we do, they learn them by imitating others.

And even though animal dialects are not super common, they’ve been found in multiple species, from bats to elephants to seals. Of course, since scientists can’t just talk to animals, deciphering their dialects requires a good bit of detective work.

   Contact Calls (01:33)  

Even though researchers don’t know what the animals are saying, they can look for repeated patterns of sound. Like there is something called the “contact call” –– that’s basically the animal equivalent of saying hello to a friend.

Some animals use a string of notes that vocally matches the sound of their friend’s contact calls. Dialect and vocal matching has been found in several species, from red crossbills to sperm whales. Animals who use these kinds of “friend or foe” calls are usually highly social, and they need to form a coherent group structure to survive.

Other species take this social cohesion function of dialects up to 11. Killer whales use them to keep in touch when members of a pod are feeding away from each other. But when it’s time to mate, they mostly choose members of whale clans who speak a different dialect, and scientists believe that helps them maintain genetic diversity.

   Conservation Efforts (02:20)  

But animal dialects are not just a quirk some species have that brings wildlife biologists and linguists together. Scientists have also been using what they know about these dialects to help with conservation efforts and monitoring populations in the wild.

As an example, in 2016, researchers used machine learning to distinguish multiple canine species by their howls, enabling them to pick out endangered red wolves from the choir of the related coyotes.

And that’s important because red wolves can mate with coyotes. To reintroduce the species, conservationists want red wolves making more pure-blooded red wolves, and the dialects make it possible to remotely distinguish when these species are getting just a little too friendly with each other.

Dialects can also help release animals rescued from illegal traffickers back into the wild the right way. Caatinga Conures are chatty green parrots who live in dry South American forests. A lot of countries prohibit their sale and work to reclaim members of the species. But confiscated birds don’t come with a return address, and releasing animals in a random location can seriously undermine the survival of their population.

So, in 2018, scientists in Brazil matched the calls of rescued conures with where their dialects existed geographically. And by releasing each animal near their home flock, they were able to make sure that, after the trauma of getting poached, the conures would have the best possible chance of being welcomed back.

   Discovering New Species (03:47)  

Being able to study animals based on remote audio also comes in handy when getting enough genetic samples in the wild is pretty much impossible like… unless you’re Aquaman.

Researchers in Japan fed recordings of short-finned pilot whale calls into a machine learning system. And that allowed them to discover two different subspecies just based on their dialects.

 Understanding the Evolution of Human Language (04:07)

Finally, scientists are starting to use their growing understanding of animal dialects to learn more about the evolution of human language. Even though some of these species may not be our closest relatives, many do communicate by stringing together sounds, and their dialects can follow much the same patterns that ours do.
For example, human and animal dialects both become more and more distinct the longer their speakers are geographically separated. Juveniles also pick them up more easily, and individuals living between two dialect groups can grow up bilingual, or at least bi-dialectal.

So animal dialects are showing us how social communication may have developed in early humans. And that ability to communicate has led our species to the point where we can now talk about their squawks and screeches in return.

   Outro (04:55)  

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[Outro music]