Published: Thu, February 01, 2018
Science | By Dan Gutierrez

Killer whale Wikie learns to 'speak' human words

Killer whale Wikie learns to 'speak' human words

A killer whale at a French marine park has been recorded mimicing words such as "hello" and "bye bye".

The orca also manages an eerie whisper that does sound remarkably like "Amy".

The team says this display of imitation helps explain how pods of wild killer whales create their own dialect, and how captive whales change their calls to fit in with their new group when moved to different locations.

Josep Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews and a co-author of the study said, "The experiment was conducted to learn how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds".

Whales are among the few animals other than humans that can learn to produce a sound just by hearing it. Noc, the beluga whale, made novel use of his nasal cavities, while Koshik, an Indian elephant jammed his trunk in his mouth, resulting in the pronouncement of Korean words ranging from "hello" to "sit down" and "no". Some birds can mimic human speech, notably parrots, but also some members of the crow family.

"They have even been known to imitate bottlenose dolphins and sea lions", said Dr Abramson. So as it is, they did not add context or meaning to any of the words.

"The evidence that killer whales can show vocal learning provides us with a missing piece of understanding about their lives in the wild", Rendell wrote.

Although the researchers did not set out to test Wikie's communication skills, the scientist who led the study believes basic "conversations" with her may one day be possible.

She can be heard copying a human trainer in recordings made at Marineland in Antibes, France. This is thought to be the first of its kind to copy human speech by a whale.

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Cetaceans like orcas and sperm whales are exceptionally good at learning to vocalize from the sounds that they hear.

The researchers in charge of training Wikie state that she can also reproduce Amy¸ the name of her principal trainer.

"But we were surprised by how close it was", he said.

The discovery, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, puts killer whales on a footing with humans.

As Wikie started mimicking her calf's voice, she was exposd to five ocra sounds along with six human sounds including "hello", "Amy", "ah ha", "one, two" and "bye bye".

The orca's human-like vocalizations represent a breakthrough, as it is the first time such capacity for imitation has been shown in the species.

In recordings of the experiment, Wikie takes several stabs at "hello". Later, Wikie copied orca sounds.

"I think here we have the first evidence that killer whales may be learning sounds by vocal imitation, and this is something that could be the basis of the dialects we observe in the wild - it is plausible", said Call, noting that to further test the idea, trials would have to be carried out with wild orcas.

There aren't that many animals capable of mimicking human speech, which requires not only a certain vocal apparatus but also specialized neural pathways.

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