Beluga adopts animals and imitates the human voice – Futura

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[EN VIDÉO] In the video: The birth of a small beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta celebrated a happy event a few weeks ago…

We are north of the Pacific Ocean. To the east, to our right, the frozen plains of Alaska. To the west lie the Siberian lands. Very close, further north, the Arctic Circle and its pack ice areas as far as the eye can see. Here the Bering Strait separates two giants, America and Eurasia. It’s summer, the mild temperatures herald the retreat of the ice. But for now, white and silence dominate. The sea is so calm that no one could have guessed what would happen today. We have an appointment with a phenomenon that only occurs once a year. An extraordinary phenomenon. But to see it, you have to go to the other side, behind the gray mirror of the water. In these seemingly inhospitable cold waters, thousands of species live in the rhythm of the seasons. They are there. We hear them before we see them. The sea is not still. By calming your breath and letting the water lull you, you can hear the life around us.

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Its white silhouette reflects the light of the sun. They swim slowly, whirl around, brush against each other. You may have recognized them by their appearance as large dolphins dressed all in white: they are belugas. While a first group comes towards us, another, a little further away, emerges from the depths of the ocean. Suddenly we are surrounded by a hundred white whales. The little ones are easy to recognize: they still have gray skin. They are the babies of the group. Looks like they’ve arranged to meet. And it’s an appointment that isn’t due to chance… but we’ll come back to that later. Because the spectacle is breathtaking. All around us, these sea giants, up to five meters long and weighing more than 1,000 kilograms, float gracefully and weightlessly in the cold waters of the Arctic. At birth, babies already weigh 80 kilos, the weight of an adult!

Belugas from Nunavut seen by Florian Ledoux

The beluga, like the whale or dolphin, is a marine mammal and belongs to the cetacean family. It lives in the northern waters of our planet. Its scientific name, Delphinapterus leucas, means “wingless dolphin” in ancient Greek. Because unlike common dolphins or sharks, its ice-white silhouette has no fins. Instead, it is topped by a thin crest that runs along its back. Its beak, split into a wide smile, reveals sharp teeth that are very useful for chopping up the fish and crustaceans it eats. There are small eyes on each side of its head, giving the beluga a large field of vision. Like all marine mammals, our whale comes to the surface to breathe thanks to its blowhole, that small hole at the top of its skull. And its vent is also used for making bubbles!

The “canary of the seas” lives in a sound universe

The beluga’s real trump card is neither its field of vision nor its sharp teeth. No, its biggest advantage is its sonar. Like its cousin, the dolphin – which gives first names to its friends, remember, we talked about this in a previous episode – the beluga, like the dolphin, is therefore capable of making sound recordings of its surroundings. To find its way in the water, at depths where sunlight is rare, it emits sounds by vibrating membranes in its nose that are more or less comparable to our vocal cords. These sounds are amplified by an organ called the cantaloupe, that large bump on the beluga’s forehead that makes it recognizable among thousands and (we’re not going to lie) makes it look a little weird.

The sounds that the beluga emits, amplified by its melon, travel through the water, and then they collide with what they encounter: the ice floe, a boat, a fish. When they encounter an obstacle, the sounds are reflected back to the beluga and vibrate through its jaw to its inner ear, telling it that there is something there in that direction. The beluga’s brain then creates a kind of map, a snapshot of its surroundings. Quite a superpower, right?

“The beluga communicates with its conspecifics by hissing, clicking, squeaking and grunting.”

The beluga is perfectly adapted to life in the sound realm of the ocean. And as you’ve probably noticed, it’s a real talker! It communicates with its peers by making hissing, clicking, squeaking and grunting noises. It is even nicknamed the “Sea Canary” because of its incessant cackling! Their singing repertoire is so diverse that it takes several years for baby belugas to be able to express themselves perfectly. Because communication is essential for these animals, which live in groups and maintain deep bonds with other animals. Belugas are social animals. Look at them, they traveled together and hardly strayed from each other! They will spend the summer here. Because, like every year, at the same time the whales migrate from their winter territories a little further north towards coastal waters, where they splash around all summer long. They make their way through the ice floe for several months, sometimes covering thousands of kilometers. This phenomenon is called “summer migration.” From year to year they take the same route, follow the same underwater route and find the same bay. Everywhere, from north to south of the Bering Strait, thousands of belugas are doing the same thing.

But why are they meeting here? How do they manage to find themselves in the same place year after year? As you can imagine, this extraordinary behavior quickly piqued the curiosity of scientists, and you will see that they made a surprising discovery about the beluga’s extraordinary intelligence.

A migration culture that is passed on from generation to generation

A team of researchers from around the world spent 30 years tracking the movements of more than 1,600 belugas living in the Arctic waters of Siberia and Alaska. They combined the research of their predecessors and followed the belugas to obtain essential information: their DNADNA. DNA is the information contained in every cell in our body. This information is a kind of biological code that is specific and completely unique to each person and determines, for example, the color of our eyes, our hair, but also certain aspects of our character. Our DNA is a bit like our biological ID card, more specifically genetic. All living things have one. And this is therefore important information for researchers! This allows them to find out whether the belugas they study belong to the same family: are they cousins, brothers and sisters, parents or children?

By comparing these genetic identity maps with the sea routes that belugas follow during their migrations, researchers made an extraordinary discovery. They realized that the belugas that came together belonged to the same family and all migrated to their place of birth. Of course, many animals migrate: fish, birds or even turtles… But what makes beluga migration so extraordinary is that they do not use chemical or magnetic signals. To find their way: You can learn migration with belugas.

Grandmother Orca ensures the survival of her grandchildren

In fact, beluga mothers pass on their knowledge of ocean routes to their young. They teach them to navigate the vastness of the Arctic waters and find their way back to their birthplace. When knowledge is passed on socially in this way, it is called culture. Belugas are not simply migratory animals; they have a migratory culture. And that changes everything! Researchers believe these migrations allow them to adapt to seasonal changes, such as finding food. This is evidence of surprising social intelligence and complex cognitive abilities. Another way of saying they’re really smart.

Narwhal adoptions and imitation of human voices

And the extraordinary abilities of belugas don’t stop there! Remember those bubbles they blew earlier? Well, scientists have discovered that they produce them alone or in groups without any real benefit, simply… for fun. These little jokes also have a big heart: groups of belugas have adopted narwhals several times. Narwhals are also called sea unicorns because of their long, needle-shaped tusks, which can be up to 3 meters long! They are cousins ​​of belugas but are not of the same species, which makes their understanding, although rare, exceptional.

And you may have heard of Noc, a beluga who rose to fame thanks to an amazing ability. Noc was a captive beluga whale that lived in a pond in San Diego, USA. Unfortunately, he was one of the belugas that were taken from their natural environment, but today things are changing and more and more voices are being raised against this type of practice. During those long years Noc spent in the pool, he interacted with belugas, dolphins and people.

Noc, the beluga who talks to people

And one day, as the scientists were going about their business near Noc Pond, they heard strange noises. Noises that sounded suspiciously like human conversation. When they realized that it was Noc himself who had created them, everyone was shocked. We don’t actually distinguish words in Noc’s speech, it’s more of a sort of mumbled conversation. But for the beluga it is a real masterpiece, because it makes an effort to produce much deeper sounds than usual by tensing the muscles of its nostrils differently. Noc had found a hobby: imitating the way people spoke. Extraordinary, isn’t it?