Orca learns how to mimic human speech, says 'hello'

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Talking’ killer whale reveals orcas can learn to mimic human speech

01 February, 2018

Killer whale "repeats human speech" - study (AUDIO, POLL) Killer whales have for the first time been recorded apparently imitating human speech.

Although mimicking human sounds is hard for mammals, whales can seemingly learn to reproduce them by hearing.

The scientists wanted to understand how capable whales are of imitating noises, so they could understand how whales learn in their natural habitat.

Wikie, a 14-year-old female killer whale housed at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, was tested by researchers including José Z. Abramson to get her to speak.

Orcas can say "hello", "bye-bye" and "one-two-three", while the voice doesn't make a ideal mimicry, but sounds impressively identifiable. "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".

As you listen to the full sequence of sounds in the link above you're likely to experience wonder, curiosity, and amusement - it's a challenge to form words through a blowhole after all and the less than successful attempts sound like noises that could have been made by eight year old kids at a sleepover. It also makes them a popular marine park attraction since they can be trained, although this practice is highly controversial, since orcas are very social animals.

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fuelled the evolution of human culture.

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

The scientist who led the study said it was conceivable that basic "conversations" with her may one day be possible. "It has been done before with a famous grey parrot and dolphins using American sign language; sentences like "bring me this object" or 'put this object above or below the other'".

In the wild, killer whales live in pods and each has its own dialect, which includes calls that are completely unique to themselves.

However, he said we have to be careful about imposing human concepts on animals.

While the sounds were all made and copied when the animals' heads were out of the water, Call said the study shed light on orca behaviour.

They eat marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and even whales, and are known to grab seals right off the ice. Even beluga whales have been observed copying humans but so far, no controlled experiments have been conducted to verify the reports.

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