“See you otter? Stick this!” – Accents in animals

Since I’m on a bit of a roll about animal voices this week, I thought I’d touch on accents.

I spoke yesterday about the subtleties of animal voices. But does that have any direct relevance for us and our engagement with the natural world?

Otter on the Ribble Picture courtesy of Pete Liptrot

Otter on the Ribble
Picture courtesy of Pete Liptrot

A few years back I was talking to a conservationist who had been working on the reintroduction of otters in Lancashire. Apparently they had brought some otters down from the west coast of Scotland to help supplement the local population and diversify the genetic stock (this is necessary to avoid inbreeding). But it had been largely unsuccessful as the two groups basically segregated themselves. Why?

It turned out, after testing various hypotheses, that the Lancashire otters didn’t take to the Scottish otters, because the pitch and tone of their voices was slightly different, and the unfamiliarity of it meant they were treated as unwelcome intruders.

This is by no means unique. The Seal Life Centre in Oban had to put two otters brought in from Canada under special protection because the ‘locals’ didn’t accept them and turned aggressive. Although, as I have been reminded since originally posting this, the Canadian otters are also a separate species.

These stories may sound amusing, and generally anything like this is reported with a wink and a smile. Yet as you can imagine, for anyone trying to manage conservation programmes aimed at recovering wild populations, it is a genuine problem to consider.

Fortunately, animals do adapt. Chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo were observed to change the pitch of their vocalisations to blend in with the locals. In other words, they lost their ‘Dutch’ accents and picked up ‘Scottish’ ones. Wild populations of animals often accept outsiders, so they are barriers that can be broken with time.

You may have noticed there are no pictures of otters by me accompanying this story. I’m sorry. Otters are a species that consistently elude me. I’ve seen them in passing (literally when training for a marathon a few years back). I have been to sites that everybody says ‘guarantee’ otters. Nothing. It’s a weird curse. Maybe it’s my Yorkshire accent?

This entry was posted in Ethology, Mammals, Wildlife stories, Zoology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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