Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

Delia Watkins
February 1, 2018

(Female orcas, also known as killer whales, usually live about 50 years, but can live as long as 100.) Using hand commands that instructed the orca, named Wikie, to copy certain noises, the researchers were able to teach her how to say words including "hello", "one, two, three", and "Amy" (the orca's trainer's name was Amy Walton).

Scientists have taught a killer whale to imitate human speech, in a new study released on January 31.

The researchers set out to find out whether killer whales could learn new vocalisations by imitating others. She was then exposed to five different orca sounds that were unfamiliar to her. Comparative evidence has revealed that although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is mostly uniquely human among primates, a few distantly related taxa of birds and mammals have also independently evolved this capacity. She easily developed sounds resembling a creaking door and the blowing of a raspberry.

Scientists say the discovery helps to shed light on how different pods of wild killer whales have ended up with distinct dialects, adding weight to the idea that they are the result of imitation between orcas.

"We found that the subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel conspecific and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly (most during the first 10 trials and three in the first attempt)", the study's abstract reads.

After initially listening to the human sound, Wikie was asked to reproduce them by her trainer who said "do this".

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"Yes, it's conceivable ... if you have labels, descriptions of what things are", he said.

Wikie was given a fish or an affectionate pat when she achieved the sound to reinforce the learning. Her two trainers judged her success and then confirmed the final conclusion.

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.

From the water, a high-pitched squeak calls out "hello" but the sound is not coming from a human, it's a whale.

They eat marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and even whales, and are known to grab seals right off the ice.

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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