February 25, 2018

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On the talking whale

01 February 2018

A killer whale can say things like "hello", "bye-bye" and "one two three" after a team of scientists taught her to imitate human speech sounds.

Whales are among the few animals other than humans that can learn to produce a sound just by hearing it.

A team of worldwide researchers have taught a female orca whale to imitate human speech, documenting what is considered to be a world first in a paper published Wednesday.

Andrews and the University of Vienna trained the 14-year-old female at the Marineland aquarium in Antibes, France, in order to probe the lengths of the orca's vocal repertoire. "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".

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

The study was comprised of three phases: retraining and reinforcing to understand "copy"; vocalizing sounds that Wikie had already performed herself; and testing with novel or different sounds previously unknown to Wikie.

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.

In the study, these whales learned to mimic words like "hello", "bye bye", and "one, two".

Wikie was then additionally exposed to five orca sounds she had never heard before, including noises resembling a creaking door and the blowing a raspberry. When we tried "hello" and she did the sound... some emotional responses came from the trainers.

It's not a children's movie, but an actual orca emitting human (ish) words. Researchers suspected this was the case, but hadn't gathered enough evidence of orcas learning and mimicking sounds. The shackles imposed by training regimes created to get captive whales and dolphins to perform precise tricks and maneuvers curtail innovation, and innovation is exactly what is needed to keep highly intelligent animals mentally stimulated.

"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", said Call, noting that to further test the idea, trials would have to be carried out with wild orcas. The scientists were also quick to pour water on any suggestions their research indicated Wikie was able to comprehend the sounds she was making as communication.

Killer whales have also been recorded mimicking dolphin and sea lion sounds.

On the talking whale