Orca Whales Show They Can Imitate Human Speech

Whales learn in families.     Shutterstock

Whales learn in families. Shutterstock

In the study, these whales learned to mimic words like "hello", "bye bye", and "one, two".

Another viewer said it reminded him of The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, a sketch made famous in BBC comedy The Two Ronnies in 1976.

Take Wikie, for instance, a killer whale which is able to produce human sounds such as " "hello", "Amy", "ah ha", "one, two" and "bye bye". "Humans obviously are good at it but, interestingly, the mammals that can do best are marine mammals".

Researchers have taught an orca, also known as a killer whale, to imitate human speech sounds.

Wikie (R), a killer whale, swims with her calf in Marineland aquatic park in Antibes, southeastern France, 12 December 2013.

"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.

Scientists have hypothesized that these conditions are what led certain cetaceans to have vocal-learning skills relatively unique in the animal kingdom: they have above-average control of the sounds they make to accommodate these different water pressures. Researchers suspected this was the case, but hadn't gathered enough evidence of orcas learning and mimicking sounds. The toothed whales, also known as a "killer whales" (they actually belong to the dolphin family), are thought to have a complex form of communication with different dialects (slightly different language) from one pod to another.

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, yet in other animals it is strikingly rare. In fact, an African grey parrot recently garnered headlines by mimicking human speech so accurately that the bird was referenced in a murder trial, allegedly for speaking what may have been its owner's last words before the man was killed.

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"Killer whales use their blowhole to make noises, nearly like speaking out of your nose, so we were not expecting it to be ideal", Dr Jose Abramson, a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid, who led the study, told The Independent.

"Yes, it's conceivable. if you have labels, descriptions of what things are", he said.

"But you have to be careful about imposing our human concepts on animals".

A killer whale has been taught to speak human words through her blowhole. Previous sessions with Wikie had already trained her to respond to a "do this" command for a fish reward, the study authors reported.

The scientists throughout their experiment found that Wikie was quick in copying sounds The matching were backed up through an analysis of various acoustic features from the recordings of Wikie's sounds.

Killer whales have previously been shown to mimic dolphin sounds.

"In sum, Wikie made recognizable copies of the demonstrated sound judged in real time by two observers, Wikie's trainer and one experimenter, later confirmed by both after listening to the recordings", the researchers said.

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