Killer whale in France mimics human speech

Researchers say the orca was a fast learner. They report that she made recognisable copies of all the sounds, usually within the first 10 attempts, and sometimes straight away.

In a first of its kind development, researchers have managed to teach a killer whale to mimic human speech including words like “hello,” “Amy” and “bye, bye.”

According to researchers in France, the 14-year-old killer whale named Wikie at the Marineland aquarium in the city of Antibes has successfully imitated human speech. The researchers got the whale to squeak out convincing versions of some of the most common words that we speak in our day to day life.

This capability puts Wikie in rare company of birds such as parrots and mynas that are known to be able to mimic human sounds. There are only a mammals, including a zoo elephant in South Korea, known to have imitated human speech.

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Wikie had already been trained during previous studies to respond to “copy” or “do that!” command, and this time the researchers used it after introducing her to sounds she’d never heard or uttered before – some orca, some human.

She did well, making “recognizable copies” of all the sounds within 17 tries, the researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The orca got two of the human sounds right on her very first attempt: “hello” and “one, two, three.”

In their paper, a team of researchers led by Jose Abramson of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, in Santiago, Chile, describe exposing Wikie to 11 novel sounds, some human and some not, and asking her to repeat them. The whale had already been the subject of another experiment, four years earlier, about mimicking movements, and had thus learned a specific command signifying “repeat after me”.

The international team of researchers say Wikie’s skills may shed light on how each wild killer whale pod fashions its own distinct dialect – a tribal language of sorts that scientists suspect is socially learned. Orcas had previously been observed mimicking sea lion and dolphin sounds, but the authors say this study is the first to test their ability in a controlled experiment. And Wikie’s performance, they say, shows that vocal imitation may be one secret to killer whale communication.

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