Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

01 February, 2018, 00:38 | Author: Rolando Keller
  • Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

Scientists have found a killer whale in France capable of imitating the sounds of other orcas as well as human speech, including the words "hello", "Amy", and "bye bye".

Researchers have lately found that orcas got different accents and those accents are picked up by the killer whales while they imitate the adults when they are young, just like children learn how to speak by mimicking and copying.

Hot from the presses is the news that Wikie, a captive orca in Marineland Aquarium, Antibes, France, has learned to mimic human language. She successfully reproduced some sounds - such as the phrases "hello" and "one, two, three" - on her first attempt.

The 14-year-old female, named Wikie, can say "hello", "one, two", "ah ha", "bye bye", and "Amy".

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

The trainer gave Wikie a fish to eat or patted her with love to reinforce learning. In fact, an African grey parrot recently garnered headlines by mimicking human speech so accurately that the bird was referenced in a murder trial, allegedly for speaking what may have been its owner's last words before the man was killed.

Dolphins and beluga whales are among the few mammals that can copy sounds from other species or each other.

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The question now on everyone's mind, of course, is whether we'll ever be able to actually talk to these sea creatures-and one of the researchers who worked on the study told BBC News that, indeed, the project's success suggests rudimentary conversations with a trained orca may one day be possible.

"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", said Call, noting that to further test the idea, trials would have to be carried out with wild orcas.

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. "The capacity for vocal imitation shown in this study may scaffold the natural vocal traditions of killer whales in the wild".

Previous year the company vowed to fight a ban on breeding killer whales and dolphins in captivity, claiming it would harm its animals.

The experiments are reported in the journal.

"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.

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