Buggy or shopping cart? Have you ever noticed that people from different parts of the same country might use different words for the same item? Human communication often changes from region to region. Research indicates that some groups of the same animal species also communicate in distinct ways.
A dialect is a form of a language typical to a specific region or social group. Someone’s answer to the question above gives a clue about where that person is from: Southerners tend to say buggy; Northerners and Westerners prefer shopping cart.
Termites, ants, bees, elephants, lions, baboons, dolphins, penguins—all live and socialize in groups. Scientists have studied behavior within their hives, prides, pods, and troops. But what’s less widely known is that differences can also exist in the sounds animals of the same species make to communicate. Yep. Animals have dialects too.
Birds, cats, and even whales may use different dialects depending on their home turf or surf. Certain songbirds show regional differences in their calls. One study showed that birds living in a city setting sang differently from the same species in the country.
Most recently, scientists discovered dialects in an east African rodent species—the naked mole-rat.
Despite their name, naked mole-rats are not completely bare. They have sensory hairs on their bodies. Their underground colonies may consist of hundreds of related individuals that cooperate to dig and defend the tunnels and find food.
Naked mole-rats see and hear poorly. But they “speak” well, producing a wide range of calls.
In one study, a team of scientists found that naked mole-rats seem to use dialect to determine who’s a colony member and who isn’t. Clever!
The researchers recorded over 36,000 chirps from mole-rats in four captive colonies. A computer analyzed the differences. The computer identified which animal made each chirp—and which of the four colonies that animal was from.
The mole-rats often responded to chirps played through a loudspeaker by chirping back, especially if the recordings were of members of their own colony. They even responded to fake calls that mimicked their colony’s dialect.
If scientists moved baby mole-rats to different colonies, after several months they would “speak the dialect” of their foster colony. That led scientists to wonder whether a mole-rat could fake a dialect in order to be accepted into another colony.
Animal dialects like the mole-rats’ may give researchers information about the development of languages and other cultural traits in humans.