Sci-tech

Talking killer whale verifies orcas' ability to mimic human sounds

Talking killer whale verifies orcas' ability to mimic human sounds

A captive orca named Wikie has become the first killer whale known to recognizably make sounds that are not part of her native repertoire - including human language words like "hello" and "bye bye".

The whale at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, was also able to mimic an elephant's trumpeting, a wolf's howl and the sounds of a creaking door, according to Live Science, and she was able to learn the sounds quickly.

A high-pitched and eerie voice uttering the name "Amy" is quite clear in the audio released by the study's researchers. "Although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is widespread in birds, it is strikingly rare in mammals, and among primates it is uniquely human".

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

Wikie also copied the trainer in saying words like hello and goodbye.

Wikie was taught to copy sounds and words from her three-year-old calf Moana and humans. The scientific study is well conceived and thoroughly done (please see the abstract at the end of this article), and essentially was done to validate that orcas can learn dialects from both conspecifics and humans.

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"Yes, it's conceivable ... if you have labels, descriptions of what things are", he said. What's more, two human utterances and all of the human-produced orca sounds were managed on the first attempt - although only one human sound - "hello" - was correctly produced more than 50% of the time on subsequent trials.

But just because animals can mimic human sounds, that does not mean that they understand our language, she added.

To determine whether the original sounds and Wikie's versions matched, the researchers asked human judges to decide, and then ran computer algorithms to provide a more objective assessment of the similarities.

"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", Call told The Guardian.

Wikie had previously participated in an action imitation study, so she already knew the "copy" command, giving her a leg (or a fin) up when it came to "speaking".

She was taught to speak human words through her blowhole and can be heard in recordings mimicking words such as hello and Amy, and counting one, two, three, using squawks, shrill whistles or raspberries. Cetacean brains are different, the context for communication varies, and in in the water medium where they evolved sound behaves differently. A similar process was done for the second round, but with all human sounds.


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