Do animals have accents? © Getty Images

Do animals have accents?

A guide to the (often misunderstood) science of the bizarre accents found in nature.

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.

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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 an accent, we’d need to find an animal that produces a regionally distinct vocalisation, which can still be understood by other groups, even if they hadn’t encountered it before.

In 2006, it was reported that cows from different counties might moo with distinct accents, but this was actually a PR stunt for a West Country cheese manufacturer. However, a 2012 study at the University of London found that when young goats joined a new social group, their bleats adapted to match those of the other goats. Yet, findings like this are extremely rare.

Asked by: Rob Sedgwick, Dorking

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