Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

Doug Carpenter
February 1, 2018

The people hearing to the highly-pitche distinct sound of voice clearly heard Wikie calling "Amy".

Neither Abramson's team nor the staff at Marineland have any plans to turn Wikie's speaking prowess into a show for the benefit of visitors, but the achievement helps to shed light on an important aspect of previously recorded wild orca behaviour.

The scientists thought the ability of Wilkie to imitate new noises may provide some insight into the process by which whales imitate the sounds they hear in the wild, and acquire dialects.

"The results reported here show that killer whales have evolved the ability to control sound production and qualify as open-ended vocal learners", the scientists conclude.

While other animals like dolphins, bats, seals, elephants and parrots have already been found to mimic human speech, Rendell says a whale repeating "hello" and other phrases meaningless to the mammals proves "they are capable of one of the core building blocks of language development in humans: vocal learning". Anecdotal reports suggested that they are also capable of mimicking sounds from bottlenose dolphins and sea lions.

He poured cold water, however, on the idea that orcas might understand the words they mimic. You can say that AIs are more intelligent than humans because they win at chess, but that's just one type of cognitive capacity.

An worldwide team of researchers has just published a study demonstrating the talking abilities of 14-year-old Wikie, who lives at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France.

An orca performs on August 11, 2013, at the Marineland animal exhibition park in the French Riviera city of Antibes, southeastern France.

"We found that the subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly, most during the first 10 trials and three in the first attempt".

Finally, Wikie was exposed to a human making three of the orca sounds, as well as six human sounds, including "hello", "Amy", "ah ha", "one, two" and "bye bye". "But if you learn from the experience of the others it's more safe", said Abramson.

The findings were published online today (Jan. 30) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Wilkie's sounds were analyzed first, by human judges, and then using computer analysis.

In recordings of the experiment, Wikie takes several stabs at "hello".

Wikie listened to the sounds both live, and replayed as recordings.

Researchers have long tracked pods of killers whales by their dialects.

So, scientists made a decision to find out whether killer whales could learn new vocalizations by imitating others.

Dr Irene Pepperberg, an expert in parrot cognition at Harvard University, also described the study as exciting, but said: "A stronger test would have been whether the various sounds produced could be correctly classified by humans without the models present for comparison".

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