Orca whales can imitate human speech

Both human listeners and an algorithm used to judge the whale's vocalizations agreed that Wikie successfully learned the sounds.
By Delila James | Feb 02, 2018
Killer whales are able to imitate a variety of sounds, including human speech, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The research, conducted at the Mainland Aquarium in Antibes, France, confirms the importance of social learning for the species.

"We wanted to study vocal imitation because it's a hallmark of human spoken language, which is in turn important for human cultural evolution," says study leader Jos Zamorano-Abramson, a postdoctoral researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, in a report by The New York Times. "We are interested in the possibility that other species also have cultural processes."

The researchers first trained a young orca named Moana to copy sounds not normally in the whale's natural repertoire, including of an elephant and a creaking door. Then they taught Moana's mother, Wikie, to imitate each vocalization by listening to her calf directly or through speakers.

Wikie also was able to imitate six human words or phrases, including "bye-bye," "one two three," and "Amy."

Both human listeners and an algorithm used to judge the whale's vocalizations agreed that Wikie successfully learned the sounds.

"This is the first study to show that killer whales can make recognizable copies of human sounds," said Abramson.

While Dr. Abramson does not endorse the capture of new killer whales, Wikie was born in captivity and is ill-equipped to cope in the wild. The team hopes the new research will contribute to a better understanding of wild populations and how to protect them.

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