Killer whale learns how to mimic human speech

The killer whale was able to mimic the duration and pitch of human speech coming close on three words to a ‘high-quality match’. File

Neither Abramson's team nor the staff at Marineland have any plans to turn Wikie's speaking prowess into a show for the benefit of visitors, but the achievement helps to shed light on an important aspect of previously recorded wild orca behaviour.

Wikie, a 16-year-old captive orca living in a French marine theme park, can be heard in recordings mimicking words such as "hello" and "Amy", and counting "one, two, three".

The researchers had taught the calf new sounds and then prompted Wikie to imitate them.

Wild killer whales are also known to live in groups with unique vocal "dialects" - learned sounds used for communication that are kept within a particular population and passed to future generations.

Co-author of the study Joseph Call professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews said, "In mammals, it is very rare". (Despite the name, killer whales are actually in the dolphin family.) Unlike humans, whales and dolphins "speak" through their nasal passages, and have sound-producing organs that scientists believe evolved to accommodate changing compression as the animals swim and dive through different levels of water pressure. Belugas and bottlenose dolphins have been observed doing it, as well as elephants.

The scientist further added that only a fraction of the animal kingdom can mimic human speech, with brain pathways and vocal apparatus. A riding instructor I knew had to spell out what she wanted the riders to do because the lesson horses understood the basic commands (walk, trot, canter) and would go into the gaits before the students could cue them.

Wikie is undergoing training at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France.

In addition to human sounds, Wikie was exposed to noises made by another killer whale to see if she was capable of imitating them.

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The study also showed the animal was able to copy unfamiliar sounds produced by other orcas. You might be surprised by what the whale says back.

The star of this latest study, Wikie had already been trained to respond to a "copy" command as part of previous research into imitative learning in orcas.

The team found that Wikie was often quickly able to copy the sounds, whether from an orca or a human, with all of the novel noises mimicked within 17 trials. They were also confused first listening to ocra's crying voice which sounds similar to a human cry.

In recordings of the experiment, Wikie takes several stabs at "hello".

For most of the sounds, Wikie was able to successfully imitate in less than 10 trials.

Researchers have long tracked pods of killers whales by their dialects.

Diana Reiss, an expert in dolphin communication and professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of NY, welcomed the research, noting that it extends our understanding of orcas' vocal abilities, with Wikie able to apply a "copy" command learned for imitation of actions to imitation of sounds.

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