Orcas can recognize human speech and “talk back” through their blowholes, with noises that whales don’t usually make. Scallops have hundreds of eyes that contain miniature mirrors able to “see” like the reflective telescopes that Isaac Newton invented in the 1600s. Oysters can “hear” the water around them, including boats reverberating throughout their environment.
These findings about the abilities of marine life come from recent scientific research. They provide new understanding into the lives of these creatures and suggest that, in some cases, boaters and swimmers may be able to communicate with and affect those animals in ways the scientific community previously did not understand.
The whale research was done with Wikie, a captive orca at the Marineland aquarium in Antibes, France. As reported in the British-based research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society (Series B), researchers with the Complutense University of Madrid, in Spain, and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile got the whale to repeat versions of numerous sounds, including counting “one, two, three.”
Wikie’s responses were not perfect matches, the way a parrot can repeat words. CBS News reported that the whale’s closest match was a “deep, throaty sound, a bit like a cartoon demon might say hello. But the responses were close enough in things such as cadence and response time that researchers called them the first scientific demonstration that an orca could mimic human words.
The researchers say Wikie usually made recognizable versions of human words inside of 10 tries, and did so three times on the first try. The research doesn’t mean the whale understands what the words mean, researchers stressed, but it does mean that more human communication with whales may be possible.
“Results reported here show that killer whales have evolved the ability to control sound production and qualify as open-ended vocal learners,” the research team wrote.
In the case of the scallops, a team of Israeli researchers reported in the academic journal Science that it had discovered the “tiled, off-axis mirror of the scallop eye bears a striking resemblance to the segmented mirrors of reflecting telescopes.”
Those researchers used a new kind of microscope to study the details of the scallop eye, which is about the size of a poppy seed. Every scallop has hundreds of eyes, with each attached to its own tiny tentacle. The cryon-electric microscope let researchers see that inside of each eye, the scallop has a miniature mirror made up of millions of square tiles — believed to be the first flat squares ever found in nature and similar to those in reflecting telescopes, which can be strong enough to see into space.
The images that each scallop eye collects are believed to combine into a signal that goes to one cluster of neurons. That process means the scallop may be “seeing” a complex picture of the world around it, including objects such as boats or swimmers that may be far beyond its shell.
“From our ray-tracing reconstructions, we estimate that they can form a blurry image of the shapes of objects,” study co-author Stephen Weiner, of the Weizman Institute of Science, told Popular Mechanics.
And then there are the oysters. A researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France exposed a few dozen Pacific oysters to a range of sounds inside a tank. Oysters typically close their valves when they are stressed, so the researchers measured the time between various sounds being made and the oysters closing their valves.
The oysters responded to sounds, or at least to the sounds’ vibrations, at frequencies from 10 to 1,000 hertz, with the most sensitivity seen between 10 and 200 hertz — frequencies that match those produced by shipping, seismic surveys and wind turbines, according to the study.
“Our results show that in shallow waters, they must be able to hear breaking waves and water currents,” researcher Jean-Charles Massabuau told New Scientist. Oysters might even “hear” predators such as lobsters and fish approaching, he added.
All of the findings suggest that boating and its related activities may affect the lives and behavior of underwater animals in ways that are not fully understood. It may be possible for humans to communicate differently with whales, as well as to interrupt the sensory experiences of scallops and oysters.
The underwater sounds and vibrations of boats, for instance, might trigger mollusks to close during important spawning times. And the underwater shadows that boats create, and the way they block sun rays from penetrating the water surface, could prevent scallops from seeing predators.
Whether those effects are serious is a question that researchers continue to debate, but as British-based researcher Mike Elliott, who has studied hermit crabs and mussels, told New Scientist, getting in the way of nature’s plan can lead to consequences that affect the entire food chain. “If mussels and oysters keep their shells closed because of the vibration from human-produced noise,” he said, “then they may be unable to feed, leading to starvation, poor reproduction and other impacts.”
When it comes to whales, researchers say, imitation is a sign of intelligence, and in human intelligence, the ability to imitate leads to social learning (learning by observing or taking instruction, as children do). With that type of learning comes the formation of culture, and that means there are possibilities for new forms of human-animal culture to develop.
As researcher Jose Abramson told the Paris-based news organization Agence France-Presse: “If you find that other species have also the capacity for social learning, and of complex social learning that could be imitation or teaching, you expect a lot of flexibility in that species.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue.