February 17, 2018

Orca are able to mimic human speech, according to new study

01 February 2018, 12:38 | Ruben Fields

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

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

A KILLER whale named Wikie has been taught to speak through her blowhole - and a scientist says she may be able to hold a conversation one day.

The new study's findings suggest that killer whales can learn and imitate new sounds by listening to them.

The human words and phrases she attempted to copy included "ah ah", "hello", "bye bye", "Amy", "one two" and "one two three".

In their paper, a team of researchers led by Jose Abramson of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, in Santiago, Chile, describe exposing Wikie to 11 novel sounds, some human and some not, and asking her to repeat them.

Previously killer whales have been observed mimicking the barks of sea lions and the whistles of sea dolphins and beluga whales have been filmed apparently imitating humans, but until now no controlled experiments have been carried out to verify the reports.

When researchers trained Wikie to mimic human words through the blowhole, she surprised everyone. It is for the first time that a mammal has been able to copy human words. She easily developed sounds resembling a creaking door and the blowing of a raspberry.

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But just because animals can mimic human sounds, that does not mean that they understand our language, she added. Although Wikie is not the first animal to achieve this feat, it surely is one the rare animals that can mimic human speech using brain pathways and vocal apparatus.

Using Wikie the whale, who lives at the Marineland Aquarium in southern France as their test subject, scientists discovered a whale could learn new vocalizations by imitating its trainer.

Killer whales live in pods in the wild and each has a dialect of its own. Her two trainers judged her success and then confirmed the final conclusion.

"Yes, it's conceivable ... if you have labels, descriptions of what things are", he said.

"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.

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. Cetacean brains are different, the context for communication varies, and in in the water medium where they evolved sound behaves differently. The researchers also had blindfolded judges listen to audio samples - original and orca-produced - and decide whether the recordings sounded similar.

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