Elk topolects

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Who would have thought?

Even North America’s Elk Have Regional Dialects

Why do Pennsylvania elk sound different from Colorado elk?

By Kylie Mohr, The Atlantic Monthly (July 16, 2023)


It’s a crisp fall evening in Grand Teton National Park. A mournful, groaning call cuts through the dusky-blue light: a male elk, bugling. The sound ricochets across the grassy meadow. A minute later, another bull answers from somewhere in the shadows.

Bugles are the telltale sound of elk during mating season. Now new research has found that male elks’ bugles sound slightly different depending on where they live. Other studies have shown that whale, bat, and bird calls have dialects of sorts too, and a team led by Jennifer Clarke, a behavioral ecologist at the Center for Wildlife Studies and a professor at the University of La Verne, in California, is the first to identify such differences in any species of ungulate.

Her research, published earlier this year in the Journal of Mammalogy, dug into the unique symphony created by different elk herds. Although most people can detect human dialects and accents—a honey-thick southern drawl versus nasal New England speech—differences in regional elk bugles are almost imperceptible to human ears. But by using spectrograms to visually represent sound frequencies, researchers can see the details of each region’s signature bugles. “It’s like handwriting,” Clarke says. “You can recognize Bill’s handwriting from George’s handwriting.”

Pennsylvania’s elk herds were translocated from the West in the early 1900s, and today, they have longer tonal whistles and quieter bugles than elk in Colorado. Meanwhile, bugles change frequency from low to high tones more sharply in Wyoming than they do in Pennsylvania or Colorado.

These unanswered questions are part of the larger field of bioacoustics, which blends biology and acoustics to deepen our understanding of the noises that surround us in nature. Bioacoustics can sometimes be used as a conservation tool to monitor animal behavior, and other studies are shedding light on how it affects animal evolution, disease transfer, and cognition.

Elk are not the only species with regional dialects. In North America, eastern and western hermit thrushes sing different song structures, and the white-crowned sparrow’s song can help ornithologists identify where it was born. Campbell’s monkeys also have localized dialects in their songs and calls, as does the rock hyrax, a mammal that looks like a rodent but is actually related to elephants.

Similar differences exist underwater, where whale songs have unique phrases that vary by location. Sperm whales in the Caribbean have clicking patterns in their calls that differ from those of their Pacific Ocean counterparts. Orcas in Puget Sound use distinctive clicks and whistles within their own pods.

Clarke also studies the vocalizations of ptarmigan, flying foxes, and Tasmanian devils. Her next research project will shed light on how bison mothers lead their herds and communicate with their calves. “They’re the heart of the herd,” she says. “What are they talking about?” 

Given that I am living as a recluse in the Green Mountains this summer and that, like Sarah Palin, I will be having an elk burger for dinner this evening, the matter of elk topolects is particularly evocative.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Allen Thrasher said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 12:14 pm

    Have the researchers begun to investigate whether the regional differences are caused by genetic differences, or by younger individuals imitating their elders–nature or culture?

  2. Doctor Science said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 12:34 pm

    Unfortunately I don't have access to the full article, but Clarke &c are wondering if the differences are due to genetic changes or cultural transmission, or both.

    It occurs to me that one way to tell the difference would be to find historical recordings and look at change over time. My academic work was in population genetics, and it startled me to learn that with language large populations (e.g. London) change faster than small, isolated ones. With genetics it's the other way around: large populations are genetically stable (& don't evolve quickly), small ones are where genetic drift and evolution happen.

  3. Philip Anderson said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 2:08 pm

    To limit confusion, it should be noted that in Europe an elk is what North Americans call a moose (Alces Alces, from the Greek descendant of the PIE root):
    What the Americans call an ‘elk’ is a different species, also known as a ‘wapiti’. Like ‘corn’, this is an English word that has been repurposed to refer to a New World species.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 2:08 pm

    Drift does happen in small linguistic populations. If you want to find very unusual features in language families that otherwise lack them, look in isolated mountain villages first.

  5. Christian Weisgerber said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 2:42 pm

    in Europe an elk is what North Americans call a moose

    Is that so? There are no moose on the British Isles. It's less clear to me what term Europeans from countries with moose populations will use when speaking English as a foreign language.

  6. Taylor, Philip said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 4:06 pm

    "There are no moose on the British Isles.". Not strictly true — "A herd of moose, otherwise known as European elk […] already live in a Royal Zoological Society of Scotland wildlife park in the Cairngorms". From https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/apr/15/wildlife.endangeredspecies

  7. Captain Jeffrey Spaulding said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 6:15 pm

    A moose runs around on the floor and eats cheese and is chased by the cats. The elks, on the other hand, live up in the hills, and in the spring they come down for their annual convention. It is very interesting to watch them come down to the water-hole; and you should see them run when they find it is only a water-hole. What they're looking for is an elk-a-hole.

  8. chris said,

    July 18, 2023 @ 7:54 am

    If you take a male elk from one region and move him to another region, will the female elk think his accent is sexy?

  9. Ted McClure said,

    July 18, 2023 @ 2:34 pm

    American "elk" = European "red deer" (Cervus elaphus). Ongoing dispute over whether Cervus elaphus and Cervus canadensis are the same species (see https://journal.wildlife.ca.gov/2022/10/11/whats-in-a-name-cervus-canadensis-versus-cervus-elaphus/).

  10. Anthea Fleming said,

    July 21, 2023 @ 1:33 am

    Zoo keeper: There's a moose loose!
    Visitor: Are you English or Scots?

    Antediluvian joke from "Punch"

  11. Killer said,

    July 22, 2023 @ 8:12 pm

    “a honey-thick southern drawl versus nasal New England speech” … “nasal” is hardly the first adjective that springs to my mind to describe New England speech; nor would New England spring to mind if you asked me to name a nasal “speech.”

    “You can recognize Bill’s handwriting from George’s handwriting.” Surely the verb should be “distinguish”?

  12. cameron said,

    July 24, 2023 @ 11:41 am

    there's a new essay on Aeon about animal vocalisations, by a wolf specialist:


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