Killer whale Wikie learns to 'speak' human words

Killer whale Wikie learns to 'speak' human words

Killer whale Wikie learns to 'speak' human words

Human words comprised "ah ah", "hello", "bye bye", "Amy", "one two" and "one two three". (Despite the name, killer whales are actually in the dolphin family.) Unlike humans, whales and dolphins "speak" through their nasal passages, and have sound-producing organs that scientists believe evolved to accommodate changing compression as the animals swim and dive through different levels of water pressure.

The researchers set out to find out whether killer whales could learn new vocalisations by imitating others.

Wikie is undergoing training at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. Wikie could utter "hello" 55 percent of the time, while her "bye-bye" was correct only 21 percent of the time, suggesting some sounds are harder than others to reproduce for orcas.

"She is also a painful reminder that in the wild where these awesome animals swim free, they communicate with each other using complex language and even group-specific dialects, natural communication that is utterly denied them in captivity".

A much earlier study, in 1985, reported two adult male harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) that "mimicked one or more English words and phrases". She easily developed sounds resembling a creaking door and the blowing of a raspberry.

"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".

Wikie was able to repeat a handful of words including "hello", "bye bye", "one, two" and "Amy". The match was also confirmed by blindfolded judges who had to listen to original and orca-produced audio samples and then decide whether the pairs sounded similar.

"We wanted to see how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds", said Josep Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews and a co-author of the study.

The researchers wrote in their paper that "Although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is wide-spread [sic] in birds, it is strikingly rare in mammals, and among primates it is uniquely human".

The ability of this orca to produce human sounds is especially significant due to the species' anatomy. Belugas and bottlenose dolphins have been observed doing it, as well as elephants.

Researchers from institutions in Germany, UK, Spain and Chile in their journal Proceeding of the Royal Society B state that the 14-year-old Wikie was first trained to copy actions performed by another ocra on giving signals by humans. This could add another layer of difficulty, though it also raises questions as to whether she would learn and repeat sounds differently underwater.

Related news