Wed | Jul 18, 2018

Tony Deyal | Fishy business and mighty sparrows

Published:Saturday | January 28, 2017 | 12:00 AM

One thing about all fishing stories and tall tales is that the one that got away is always bigger than the one you gotta weigh. However, science has come up with an even bigger fishy business.

Experts believe that the Cornish codfish, which make sounds with their swim bladders to attract mates, may have regional accents - and if males cannot chat up females who speak a different dialect, it could threaten their ability to breed. There are also concerns that noise pollution from boats and other marine activities could be drowning out the 'gossip' cod need to establish territories, to raise the alarm, and to mate. This would be bad news for all salt fish lovers for whom, as the Mighty Sparrow sang, "Nothing in the world is sweeter ... ."

Even more interesting is that Caribbean sperm whales, although not fishes, communicate through specifically spaced clicks called 'codas' and are known to have dialects. Codas are different from cod-speak and are 'Morse code-like patterns of clicks' made by the whales. An article in MACLEAN'S by Kate Lunau, titled 'Have we met?': Sperm whales can talk, and even have dialects' reveals,

"Shortly after birth, whales begin to babble, and eventually pick up a dialect, which distinguishes them as members of a particular 'vocal clan'. Each clan can encompass thousands of sperm whales. Members of different vocal clans are culturally different: they might not travel the same routes, and won't interact much."

The article is based on research from the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, which tracks sperm whale families. According to Dr Shane Zero and his colleagues on the project, whales are able to identify their vocal clan, their family and themselves - saying something like, "My name is Shane, my family is Gero, and I am Canadian."




And the accent differs with Caribbean whales having a different accent from whales from other regions. It would be interesting to know if the Dominican whales speak 'Cocoy' (of Kokoy), the mixture of English and French creole or patois and pronounce 'seat' as 'sit' and 'sit' as 'seat'.

More, would the Trini whales be unable to roll their 'Rs' and pronounce 'mother' as 'mudder', male Guyanese whales call each other 'bai', Jamaican whales sing Bob Marley standards (Jamming, Waiting in Vain, Stir It Up or Positive Vibration while keeping time with their tails), or the Barbadian whales pronounce 'television' as 'televidgeon' and say 'above' when they mean 'further ahead'? One thing, coming from the Caribbean, they would always have a whale of a time and demonstrate why they are sperm whales.

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The Telegraph newspaper says, "The famous songs of humpback whales can be heard underwater for thousands of kilometres ... and are subject to fashion and fads. Every so often a whale will change up a new segment of the song, and this will gradually spread throughout the community. It is like a Trinidad road march without the gyrating.

It is not just the cods and whales who do it, birds and bats do it, too. Brian Palmer, writing in the Washington Post, says, "Don't pat yourself on the back for our unique language-leaning abilities, though. Humans are not quite alone in our ability to acquire language." He quotes Ofer Tchernichovski, a bird communications expert from Hunter College, New York, "Songbirds are fantastic learners. A nightingale can learn to sing 60 different songs after hearing them only a few times."

Palmer points out that individual members of the same songbird species sing different songs based on their hometown, and different population groups combine the sounds in different ways. They seem to learn their local patterns in the first three months of their lives by listening to adults, and this is how ornithologists can immediately identify a white-crowned sparrow's place of birth from its song. I am no bird-man, but I can tell a bald-headed, ageing Sparrow from Grenada by his magnificent voice and repertoire from another Sparrow hunting for food in Kensington Oval.




This leads us to bats, not those at Kensington, but more likely in the WACA and MCG, the Australian cricket grounds. A team of Australian scientists found that the creatures, not the weapons of cricket warfare, develop dialects depending on where they live. Bats use their calls to navigate and hunt using a process called echolocation, in which high-frequency ultrasounds, inaudible to humans, hit objects and echo back. However, they are not autographed and might even now be looking for sponsors. If anyone has seen Dr Dolittle, please let them know as they badly need an agent.

The Telegraph newspaper has added cats to the list: "A group of animal behaviourologists believe cats may pick up regional 'accents' from their owners and that there may even be several dialects of cat in different parts of the same country."

While in terms of animal research this might be the cat's meow, the Telegraph has widened the field to include a bunch of other creatures. "From wolves to dolphins, numerous species of animals are thought to have accents when they communicate." Wolves, jackals and dogs have different accents based on their breed and location. Experts noticed dolphins living in pods in certain areas off the coast of the UK communicating with unique sounds. Dolphins produce whistles during social situations, when separated from friends, when excited, when happy and when panicked.

Different whistles are produced in different situations, and scientists have been attempting to catalogue and categorise whistles from study populations for some time. Clearly, the next step for these extremely intelligent animals is for the British Premier League to hire them as referees. I bet they will perform swimmingly.

- Tony Deyal was last seen saying that a bunch of Jamaican sperm whales are on their way to Trinidad for carnival. If immigration stops them, they plan to say they are looking for Nemo.