Belugas, the Sea Canaries: Deciphering a complex communication system

Beluga whales are the most talkative whale species - But what is all this chatter about?

Belugas, nicknamed “sea canaries”, are one of the most loquacious cetacean species, producing an impressive array of sounds for a variety of purposes, such as social communication, group cohesion, maintaining mother-calf contact, navigating, and detecting prey. 1 2 3

Large Beluga herd chatter. Audio by Valeria Vergara. 

What is all this chatter about? What are belugas saying to each other? How many different vocalizations have been identified and what do they mean?  After decades of study by teams of scientists in various countries, we are only beginning to decipher their complex communication system. 

Belugas use the same two predominant types of sounds that are used by all toothed whales: (1) whistles, or narrow-band, vocalizations, and (2) pulsed sounds, or trains of broadband pulses. The latter can be divided into two functional categories: burst pulse sounds used for communication sound to the human ear like grunts, squawks, screams, whines, and even whistles, while echolocation click trains, which are composed of ultrasonic pulses of much shorter duration than those used for communication, are used to navigate and detect prey.

Belugas can produce two different sounds at once, synchronously, in the same vocalization. Such mixed calls have been described by various researchers and consist of either a whistle and a pulse train overlapping each other, or two pulsed sounds with different pulse repetition rates. 4 5 6 7

Scientists that attempted to classify beluga vocalizations into different call types came up with widely different categories, from a minimum of only nine call types 8 to a whopping 52 call types. 9 10 11 This is partly explained by the fact that much of the vocal repertoire of belugas is graded 12 which makes it difficult to classify calls and to compare classes across studies. In graded repertoires there is a continuous variation between types of calls, so that the acoustic demarcation between call types is not always clear.  Since vocalization classes are variable, researchers have a difficult time describing a single category using only one or two examples, and they need many examples per category.  

Person sitting on a tower with a computer above the ocean.
Research tower. Photo by Valeria Vergara.
Pod of belugas swimming near the shorte.
Photo by Valeria Vergara.

Understanding the function of calls 

One of the complications in understanding the social functions of beluga calls is a methodological problem that is common to all studies of whales and dolphins: our difficulty in localizing sound sources underwater, which makes it difficult to determine which animal in a group is producing a sound. This problem can be addressed by using temporary suction-cup Dtags or hydrophone arrays, but beluga studies using these systems have not yet addressed the potential  function of the diverse calls. 

Due to the discrepancies in call classification between studies, and the methodological problems described above, conclusions about the function of beluga calls have been thus far very general, with some progress correlating vocalization rates and very broad call classes with general behavioural states.  

For example, “chirps” (a broad category that can encompass many different call types) have been found to be a good acoustic indicator of sexual and social behaviour. 

Stereotyped whistles (also a broad category) have been found to be used more frequently during directional swimming, and squeaks, bleating, and pulsed-tonal calls are produced more often during social interactions. 13

Jaw-claps, which are loud popping sounds that resemble a shotgun, made by clapping the upper and lower jaws together forcefully, are known to be an aggressive display for various toothed whale species, including belugas. 14

Belugas jaw-clapping. Audio by Valeria Vergara.

High frequency burst pulsed sounds are often associated with jaw claps during aggressive interactions in other delphinid species (e.g., bottlenose dolphins). Similarly, burst pulsed sounds like loud trills, chirps, and whistles produced in series are associated with jaw claps and with aggressive interactions in belugas (Vergara, unpublished data). 

Even more broadly, studies in several regions found, not surprisingly, that belugas are most vocal during social interaction. Other studies reported a decrease in overall vocal activity and an increase in the repetition of specific calls when disturbed or threatened. 15 16 17

In general, however, the body of work on beluga communication has been primarily descriptive, with no major efforts to understand call function.  

An exception is our understanding of contact calls. Studies of beluga contact calls began to pave the ground towards understanding the role of specific communication signals. 18 19 20 21

We now know that calls that consist of broadband rapid pulse trains with strong acoustic energy up to 150 kHz function as contact calls. They are used for group cohesion and for mother-calf contact, and we suspect that complex contact calls (those that  have a simultaneous low frequency component overlapping the main pulse train) may be individually distinct (much like human names!). 

Belugas are also well known for their vocal flexibility: they are great vocal learners and vocal imitators!  

Belugas poking their heads out of the ocean.
Photo by Valeria Vergara.

Belugas are vocal mimics 

There are several reports of captive belugas mimicking human speech and other sounds. A 15-year-old beluga at the Vancouver Aquarium apparently produced sounds that resembled human speech. 22 His keepers even suggested that he was voicing his own name “Lagosi”.  

Another 9-year-old male beluga, held at San Diego Bay, imitated the sound of human conversations with his head out of the water. 23

A male beluga named NOC, at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, imitated the sounds divers used when they communicated with the surface via underwater equipment in the beluga pool. 24

And lastly, a male beluga named Nack, at an aquarium in Japan, could imitate playbacks of his own sounds, computer-generated artificial sounds, and human words.  

This mimicking ability hints at something important:  It suggests that vocal learning, an aspect of social learning whereby individuals modify their vocalizations through experience with those of other individuals25 may largely mediate how belugas develop their own natural vocal repertoire. 

This web article is adapted from an essay written as part of our “Window on Belugas” project, a collaboration between the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), the Marine Mammal Observation Network (MMON), and Raincoast. 


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