Killer whale able to mimic human speech

Whales learn in families.     Shutterstock

Whales learn in families. Shutterstock

After recording her speech, the researchers had six independent judges listen to Wikie's vocalizations to confirm that she was imitating the human sounds well enough to be understood. Call said that the impressive part about the killer whales is that although their morphology is very different from other species like humans, they can still manage to copy sounds and speeches of humans.

Parrots, covids, and other birds are known to "parrot" speech back to humans, but the orca whale Wikie has become one of the first mammals to do the same.

For the research, the Call and his team looked at a female killer whale named Wikie at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France.

While mimicking is often a sign of intelligence in animals, Abramson said it does not mean Wikie understands what she is saying, and no context or meaning were provided to the words during the study.

As she learnt to copy commands, she was trained to imitate voices of familiar ocra sounds made by her three-year-old calf Moana.

It potentially explains why groups from different areas have different "dialects".

In the study, these whales learned to mimic words like "hello", "bye bye", and "one, two". The Orca made sounds like a creaking door, a strong raspberry, a wolf and an elephant.

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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.

The story is available in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, in a paper titled, Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca). It is for the first time that a mammal has been able to copy human words.

"You can not pick a word that is very complicated because then I think you are asking too much - we wanted things that were short but were also distinctive", Josep Call, a professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St. Andrews, told The Guardian. 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.

The researchers in charge of training Wikie state that she can also reproduce Amy¸ the name of her principal trainer.

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.

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

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