Talking killer whale verifies orcas' ability to mimic human sounds

Posted February 01, 2018

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

Another standout copycat, the lyrebird, mimics not only other animals, but also the sounds of construction equipment and auto horns, demonstrating its prowess in the 2009 documentary series "BBC Earth".

"We have no evidence that they understand what their "hello" stands for", one of the researchers said.

An worldwide team of researchers has just published a study demonstrating the talking abilities of 14-year-old Wikie, who lives at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France.

Though the recordings are not flawless, they are recognizable, including when she says, "Amy", the name of her trainer.

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In the new trial, Wikie was trained to understand a "copy" signal then invited to repeat 11 completely new sounds given by her trainer. They may copy other members of their kind in the wild, although this needs to be tested.

Finally, Wikie was exposed to a human making three of the orca sounds, as well as six human sounds, including "hello", "Amy", "ah ha", "one, two" and "bye bye".

Wikie's success takes the number non-human mammal species capable of imitating human speech to four.

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, yet in other animals it is strikingly rare. Then, Wikie was instructed to copy on command three familiar whale sounds made by her calf.

Scientists leading the research now believe that Wikie may be able to have basic "conversations" with humans one day. Dr Jose Abramson, of Complutense University in Madrid, said: "Yes, it's conceivable - if you have labels, descriptions of what things are". Other animals like dolphin, parrots, and elephants use different physical mechanisms to copy human words.

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Remarkably, field observations of killer whales have documented the existence of group-differentiated vocal dialects that are often referred to as traditions or cultures and are hypothesized to be acquired non-genetically. "The capacity for vocal imitation shown in this study may scaffold the natural vocal traditions of killer whales in the wild".

When housed with bottlenose dolphins for a period of three years, three orcas' vocalizations changed to more closely match those of the dolphins, including dolphin vocalizations such as click trains and whistles.

"That is what makes it even more impressive - even though the morphology [of orcas] is so different, they can still produce a sound that comes close to what another species, in this case us, can produce", said Call.

The experiments are reported in the journal.

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