Killer whale can mimic human speech

Wednesday 31 January 2018

A killer whale has the ability to mimic human speech, according to researchers at the University of St Andrews. The female whale learned to “say” words such as “hello” and “bye bye” by copying a trainer at a marine park in France.

In partnership with the Complutense University of Madrid, the research team had hoped to discover whether killer whales could learn new vocalisations by imitating others.

They studied the female, named Wikie, at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. Words were specifically chosen which meant nothing to her to see whether she was capable of copying new, unfamiliar sounds.

She was able to repeat words including “Amy” and “one, two, three” while partially immersed in water with her blowhole exposed to the air. Often the whale was able to produce reasonable copies on the first attempt, providing conclusive evidence that killer whales have the capability to learn new sounds.

It has long been known that killer whales in the wild have calls specific to their own pod or set of pods, and when captive killer whales are moved to a new environment they change their calls to fit in with their new companions. But until now there was no evidence that these differing “dialects” were the result of learning.

Professor Josep Call of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, said: “The killer whale that we studied in captivity was capable of learning vocalisations of other killer whales and also human vocalisations by imitating them.

“Therefore this result suggests this is also a plausible explanation for how killer whales in the wild learn the vocalisations of other killer whales and how they develop and transmit their dialects.”

Whales and dolphins are among the few mammals, other than humans, that can learn to produce a novel sound just by hearing it.

The paper, ‘Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca)’ by Jose Z Abramson, Victoria Hernandez-Lloreda, Lino Garcia, Fernando Colmenares, Francisco Aboitiz and Josep Call is in the 31 January issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B [DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2171].

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