Wildlife Wednesday: bottlenose dolphins use “baby talk” to communicate with their young

Plus: investigating a mysterious golden eagle flight, rescuing abandoned piping plover eggs, running North America’s largest bug farm, and more.

New research shows bottlenose dolphin mothers use “baby talk” to communicate with their young. (Photo: Jonas Von Werne/Pexels)
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“Baby talk” is a nearly universal speech pattern across human cultures. People around the planet adopt different tones and speaking cadences when interacting with children — and it turns out it’s not just us that do it. New research has found that bottlenose dolphins also use a form of “baby talk” to communicate with their young. 

The research team used 34 years of vocalization data to compare the signature whistles of bottlenose dolphin mothers when their calves were close to calls made when young dolphins were further away. The team found mother dolphins would change their pitch predictably based on their calves’ proximity; dolphins’ calls would reach higher and wider frequency ranges, consistently, when their calves were nearby.

The baby talk, also known as “motherese” or “child-directed communication,” is only seen in a handful of non-human species, including zebra finches and squirrel monkeys. This new research suggests that bottlenose dolphins, like humans, meet critical criteria for needing motherese; namely, long dependency on caregivers, complex social environments, and the necessity of complex vocal communication. 

Just like human “motherese,” bottlenose dolphin’s speech modifications are designed to capture calves’ attention, promote parent-child bonding, and help develop young dolphins’ speech.

Pipe dream

Birds Canada is intervening to save Ontario's piping plover population. (Photo: PeakPX [CC0 1.0])
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When “Flash,” a five-year-old piping plover, died due to suspected predation, his mate was left to raise four eggs alone. Used to incubating together, and with males playing a very large role in raising chicks after hatching, Flash’s partner was forced to abandon the eggs. 

This is becoming an all-too-common tale in Ontario, and the endangered piping plover population is declining as a result. For Birds Canada, however, Flash’s death was the last straw. Along with their partners, Bird Canada has this year taken steps to rescue almost half of abandoned piping plover eggs in Ontario this year, including those belonging to Flash and his mate.This is the result of newly granted permits and a cross-border collaboration, allowing the eggs to be saved and brought to Toronto Zoo for temporary artificial incubation. From there, the eggs are taken over the border to Detroit Zoo, who then place the eggs in their captive breeding facility in northern Michigan.

“Although we can’t guarantee that 100 per cent of our eggs will hatch and fledge in captive rearing, this gives them a fighting chance,” says Andrea Gress, Ontario Piping Plover Conservation Program Coordinator with Birds Canada. “Even Flash himself was hatched from the facility in 2018 […], which gave him a chance to have a family of his own.”


Predators over pesticide

GrowLiv produces hundreds of millions of insects per week, such as green lacewing larvae. (Photo: Andrew C, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0])
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Nine years after entomologists Abida Nasreen and Ghulam Mustafa founded bug breeding company GrowLiv, the Amherstburg, Ont., based company now produces hundreds of millions of insects per week. They believe they’re the largest insect breeding farm in North America, and guarantee live delivery that arrives within 24 hours of harvesting. 

With the help of their daughter, Meshal Mustafa, the company sells the bugs to farms and greenhouses to help manage other unwanted pests. These insects are not pollinators, but predators, and are seen as an ecologically and economically-friendly alternative to chemical pesticides. One example is the green lacewing larvae, which feed on tomato-stunting white flies.

“It’s a natural way to control pests without having to spray their crops with pesticides, this is like the first line of defence now,” says Meshal Mustafa. 

The flight of the eagle

The golden eagle spends its summers in Canada, and winters in the United States. (Photo: Tony Hisgett/Flickr)
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Every summer, a female golden eagle named Athena makes a more than 2,700 kilometre journey from the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Kentucky to Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba. But not much is known about what Athena does in Wapusk; what does she eat? Where does she nest? How many golden eagles join her for the trek? 

A new partnership between Parks Canada, Bernheim, and Conservation Science Global is working to answer those questions. Using a series of tree-mounted trail cameras in Wapusk, the group is looking to generate data on golden eagle breeding and nesting behavior in the national park. The cameras are motion-activated and don’t have a flash, so as not to disturb the birds. 

Parks Canada is hopeful the insights generated can provide a stepping-off point for protecting the birds. While golden eagles aren’t considered at risk in Canada, pressures like habitat loss, poisoning and collisions do pose an ongoing threat to the birds.

Right whale, wrong place

This year has seen unusual movements from the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. (Photo: Wallpaper Flare)
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This year has seen unusual movements from the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. Not only did they show up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence later than usual, according to fisherman and scientists, they showed up in places never seen before.

According to Marcel Hebert of the Acadian Crabbers Association, the whales were found in very shallow waters, under 20 fathoms, the first time this has been documented since they started observations in 2017. Similar unusual detections were made around P.E.I., but it isn’t clear why this is occurring. “They tend to spend less time and we wend to find mother-and-calf combinations in shallow waters, that’s perhaps a safety thing, and maybe a food distribution issue as well,” says Brett Gilchrist, director of national programs and fisheries resource management with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The late arrival, however, was a boost for New Brunswick crab fishers, as far fewer early-season fishery closures occurred (a single right whale detection closes 2,100 square kilometres of open water for 15 days). This has allowed the fishers to land 91 per cent of their quota fo 35,000 tonnes. 


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