Some animal communication is entirely hardwired. A moth can’t learn to produce a different mating pheromone, for example. But animals with more complex communication often learn the subtleties of their language by copying those around them. In 1958, researchers at Cambridge University showed that male chaffinch birds reared in isolation would grow up to sing a much simpler song; all the trills and flourishes are apparently learned from other chaffinches. Over time, isolated populations within the same species develop their own regional songs. A 2016 study at Prague University found that yellowhammers introduced to New Zealand from England in the 19th Century were using songs no longer sung by native yellowhammers back home. An accent is more subtle than a whole new song though. The varying repertoire of songbird populations is more akin to different dialects. The message is basically the same – “Single male finch, non-smoker, GSOH, seeks mate” – but the expression is different. Whales and dolphins use different sequences of clicks in their songs from one group to another, but here the purpose is to signal membership, not attract mates. This makes whale songs more like national anthems or football chants than accents. To qualify as […]

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