You had me at 'hello!': How killer whales mimic human speech

Audrey Hill
February 1, 2018

Wikie, a 16-year-old female orca that lives in a French marine theme park, has been recorded copying words such as "hello" and "bye", in what is believed to be a world first. Call said that the impressive part about the killer whales is that although their morphology is very different from other species like humans, they can still manage to copy sounds and speeches of humans.

So, scientists chose to find out whether killer whales could learn new vocalizations by imitating others.

To do so, the researchers worked with a 14-year-old captive orca named Wikie at the Marineland aquarium in Antibes, France. Comparative evidence has revealed that although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is mostly uniquely human among primates, a few distantly related taxa of birds and mammals have also independently evolved this capacity.

Its trainers are aware that the orca may not understand what she is saying.

A new experiment was carried out in which Wikie was trained in a way that she could understand the signal when she had to mimic and her trainer invited and gave her 11 new sounds like howling of a wolf, elephant call and a creaking door.

"She is also a painful reminder that in the wild where these awesome animals swim free, they communicate with each other using complex language and even group-specific dialects, natural communication that is utterly denied them in captivity".

Wikie wraps her tongue around the word "hello", in one of the study trials.

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The orca was taught to copy novel sounds and words from both another killer whale - her own three-year-old calf, Moana - and by humans.

Sounds that humans make while speaking exist far outside the regular range that killer whales, Orcinus orca, usually make. Her two trainers judged her success and then confirmed the final conclusion. The researchers also had blindfolded judges listen to audio samples - original and orca-produced - and decide whether the recordings sounded similar. It is for the first time that a mammal has been able to copy human words.

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

The findings were published online today (Jan. 30) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Whales have the rare ability to produce a particular sound just by hearing. She was then exposed to five different orca sounds that were unfamiliar to her.

A beluga whale has also been observed learning to "speak dolphin", in a case described just past year.

Other reports by MaliBehiribAe

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