Killer Whales Can Imitate Human Speech, Study Finds

Wikie, a captured killer whale, just became the first orca that can mimic words in English. They also had Wikie copy sounds she heard through a loudspeaker and from her human handlers. Call said that they wanted to see how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds.

Wikie, a 14-year-old female killer whale housed at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, was tested by researchers including José Z. Abramson to get her to speak.

Though the recordings are not ideal, they are recognizable, including when she says, "Amy", the name of her trainer.

"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 their dialects". "Hello" is the only word she can say correctly more than 50 percent of the time, but acoustic analysis proved Wikie is indeed making an effort to say the words she's being taught.

Wikie was taught several human words and phrases, including "ah-ah", "hello", "bye-bye", "Amy" and "one, two, three".

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, yet in other animals it is strikingly rare.

However, cetaceans - the mammal group that includes whales and dolphins - are known to be highly adept when it comes to vocal imitation.

Wikie's success takes the number non-human mammal species capable of imitating human speech to four.

The scientist who led the study said it was conceivable that basic "conversations" with her may one day be possible.

"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", said Call. "It has been done before with a famous grey parrot and dolphins using American sign language; sentences like "bring me this object" or 'put this object above or below the other'". "The capacity for vocal imitation shown in this study may scaffold the natural vocal traditions of killer whales in the wild".

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

A year ago the company vowed to fight a ban on breeding killer whales and dolphins in captivity, claiming it would harm its animals. The polka-dot wasp moth mimics the warning thrum produced by a bad-tasting moth species, to protect itself from predators, scientists reported in May 2007, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They can mimic the sound of bottlenose dolphins and sea lions.

  • Valerie Cook