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Caribbean Sperm Whales Have Their Own Regional Accent

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Just like English speakers in the Caribbean sound different from English speakers in England or the U.S., Caribbean whales have a distinct regional accent. A new study on whale vocalizations published in the journal Royal Society Open Science shows that Caribbean sperm whales all use a certain acoustic pattern that’s not heard outside of the region.

Over the course of six years, researchers led by Shane Gero of Aarhus University in Denmark listened to whales swimming along the west coast of Dominica, an island just north of Saint Lucia and Barbados. They recorded calls, also known as codas, from nine different social groups.

Then, they categorized the clicking vocalizations—which sound kind of like morse code—determining which patterns were consistent across the groups. Some, they found, were highly varied and unique to individuals—their own calling card, similar to a name of sorts (though that doesn’t mean the whales necessarily make them specifically for that purpose). Other call patterns were used only within the membership of one pod. But the most common coda was heard across all the whales, no matter what age, size, or social unit. Different from the acoustic calls of whales in the Pacific Ocean, this call acts as kind of a regional accent.

All the whales performed this call—described by the researchers as sounding like a “click-[PAUSE]-click-[PAUSE]-click-click-click”—so identically that the researchers couldn’t identify which whales were making which sounds. These exact codas were made by all the social groups in the study, and have long been heard in Caribbean whales. The researchers write that they "have dominated repertoires in this population for at least 30 years,” as observed in previous studies. Though the “1+1+3” rhythm of the call has never been observed in Pacific whales or in other areas of the Atlantic, even the youngest whales from the eastern Caribbean made them in the same way, suggesting that it’s a culturally learned call.

[h/t Hakai]

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Yani Dubin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0
Bumblebees Mark Their Trails With Tiny Scented "Footprints"
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Yani Dubin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0

Bees seem to have an endless number of tricks up their sleeve—and on their feet. Scientists have discovered that bumblebees leave itty-bitty scented “footprints” on every flower they visit, thereby informing other foragers that the bloom’s been recently tapped. The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Bees are the queens of complex communication. They exchange information with one another and their environments using a dazzling array of sensory input, including electrical impulses, sound, dance, and chemical signals.

Some of those signals flow out into the world through the bees’ delicate little feet. The bottom segment of a bee’s leg, called the tarsus, secretes a scented goo that helps the bee stick to the soft surfaces of flower petals. The chemical profile of each bee’s foot-glue is as unique as a fingerprint.

Previous studies have shown that bees glean important information from one another’s goo, skipping flowers that other bees have already visited. This raised an interesting question: If a bee can "read" another bee’s scent mark, can it also identify that bee?

To find out, researchers planted small clusters of fake flowers in the laboratory and topped some of them up them with sucrose nectar. They then gave bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) free rein to tromp around the blossoms, marking them up and taking in the marks of other bees that had come before.

The bees proved careful and canny readers. Not only did they use other bees’ scent marks to decide which flowers to probe, but they also considered the source of the scent when making that decision. An individual bee could easily differentiate between the smell of its own feet (trustworthy), those of its family members (very trustworthy), and those of strangers (not a reliable source of floral information).

Lead author Richard Pearce is a biologist at the University of Bristol. "Bumblebees are flexible learners and, as we have discovered, can detect whether or not it is they or a different bumblebee that has visited a flower recently. These impressive abilities allows them to be cleverer in their search for food, which will help them to be more successful," he said in a statement.

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Bees: Waugsberg via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Thought balloon: Noto Project
Honeybees Go "Whoop!" When They Bump Into Each Other
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Bees: Waugsberg via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Thought balloon: Noto Project

British scientists say startled honeybees emit a teeny “whoop!” noise when jostled or head-butted by another bee. The team described their findings this week in the journal PLOS One.

Bee societies are astoundingly sophisticated and complex; they’re strict hierarchies in which every bee knows its job and its place. To keep this social machine humming along, bees rely on multiple forms of communication: chemical signaling, electrical impulses, gestures (like their waggle dance), and sound.

One of the most common sounds is a quick little wing-buzz used often in crowded colonies. Bees seem to make this noise when they ask another bee for food and as they interfere with another bee’s waggle dance—a move that tells the second bee to change its plans. Because the buzz seems to be used to abort the waggle dance and any foraging that might follow, scientists call the noise the “stop” signal.

To learn more about the signal, researchers at the UK’s Nottingham Trent University set up accelerometers and cameras inside honeybee hives and left them there for a year. (This particular sound is inaudible to the naked human ear and can only be picked up with monitoring devices.)

Ramsey et al. 2017. PLOS One

The resulting recordings were surprisingly packed with these little buzzes. So packed, in fact, that lead author Martin Bencsik began to suspect we’d misinterpreted its meaning. “There’s no way a bee was trying to inhibit another one that frequently,” he told New Scientist, “and there’s no way a bee would request food that frequently.”

So what is the buzz about?

Surprise, it seems. Video footage from inside the hives showed that bees mostly emitted that little sound after another bee had knocked into them, the same way you might say “whoa!” when a stranger suddenly jostles you on a crowded sidewalk. Bencsik and his colleagues propose that instead of calling the noise a “stop” signal, we should call it a little “whoop” instead.

The authors suggest that bees, like people, may complain more when times are hard—which means that we might be able to use the frequency of their little whoops to calculate their colony’s stress level.

The findings are “awe-inspiring,” entomologist and educator Gwen Pearson tells mental_floss. “Honeybees [were] domesticated centuries ago, but we are still trying to understand how they work.”

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