Shaping Emotions

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Beluga whales are known as the “canaries of the sea” because of their chattiness, expressed through whistles, chirps and squeals.

But now, a new study has found that they also express themselves using a squishy bump on their foreheads known as “melon.”

In essence, as Science News described it, the beluga whale “wears its heart on its sleeve – or rather, its forehead.”

Researcher Justin Richard of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston and his team realized this after spending a year watching the interactions of four whales at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, paying close attention to the bumps, which are fat deposits that aid the marine mammals by directing soundwaves for echolocation.

While doing so, they noticed that the whales, using their muscles and connective tissue, can change the shape of these melons when interacting with each other.

They then compiled a visual encyclopedia of five different expressions captive belugas made with these “melons” that included lifting it vertically to resemble a top hat, flattening it against its skull, and making it jiggle like Jell-O.

“If that doesn’t scream ‘pay attention to me,’ I don’t know what does,” Richard told Science News. “It’s like watching a peacock spread their feathers.”

The team also found the animals would sport an average of two shapes per minute during social interactions.

Researchers are still exploring the purpose of these shapes, but Richard suggested belugas use them to signal or communicate because more than 93 percent took place within another whale’s line of sight.

Also, they realized certain shapes were also associated with a specific behavior: For example, shake and press shapes were related to courtship.

The researchers now plan to study how belugas use their melons in the wild, as well as determine the role shape-shifting has in their vocalizations.

“There’s got to be a reason they spend so much time doing it,” said Richard.

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