Orca learns mimic human speech

Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

In 30 trials, the scientists presented Wikie with recordings of unfamiliar sounds and words spoken by trainers, which the whale was then instructed to copy as in-air vocalizations (rather than underwater).

Wikie, a captured killer whale, learned how to imitate human words.

High-pitched, eerie and yet distinct, the sound of a voice calling the name "Amy" is unmistakable. Killer whales have previously been shown to mimic dolphin sounds.

A female, 16 years old orca, Wikie at the marine park in Antibes is now able to say "hello", "bye-bye", "Amy" and also can count up to three, shriek along with the ability of blowing raspberries.

After listening to the human or whale sound, Wikie was requested to reproduce them by her trainer saying "do this". "We will gain more if we try to understand the natural way each species communicates in its own environment than if we try to teach a human language", said Abramson. 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.

A new experiment was carried out in which Wikie was trained in a way that she could understand the signal when she had to mimic and her trainer invited and gave her 11 new sounds like howling of a wolf, elephant call and a creaking door.

So, scientists chose to find out whether killer whales could learn new vocalizations by imitating others.

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

Orcas can say "hello", "bye-bye" and "one-two-three", while the voice doesn't make a ideal mimicry, but sounds impressively identifiable. What's more, two human utterances and all of the human-produced orca sounds were managed on the first attempt - although only one human sound - "hello" - was correctly produced more than 50% of the time on subsequent trials. She didn't always make flawless copies - as you can hear in the audio above - but the sounds were still recognizable, both by blinded independent assessors and by sound file analysis.

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

While the sounds were all made and copied when the animals' heads were out of the water, Call said the study shed light on orca behaviour. A similar process was done for the second round, but with all human sounds.

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