Experiment Finds Killer Whales Able To Mimic Human Speech

Killer Whale

It is a well-known fact that whales have an impressive ability to communicate enabling pods to ‘talk” with one another through a series of complex clicks and singing, even when the pods are more than 100 miles apart. A new study has revealed that these mammals also have the ability to mimic human speech which until now was a skill believed to be limited to primates, birds, elephants, dolphins and seals. Scientists have a recorded a killer whale named Wikie repeating the words hello, bye bye, counting till three and even the name of her trainer Amy.

First time experiment

Wikie is a 14-year-old killer whale and resided at Marineland at Antibes in France, and this is the first-time scientists have ever recorded a whale mimic human speech. What makes this achievement even more special is that whales do not have the same kind of vocal abilities as humans, with their own sound making capabilities having evolved underwater. Humans make use of the larynx in order to converse whilst whales use their nasal passage to produce sounds through bursts of air.

Whale pods have their own accents

Scientists have also recently discovered that whales also have different accents which are picked up when whales are young as they imitate the adults in their pod, very similar to the way human children learn to speak. Killer whales live in groups known as pods with each one possessing its own dialect that includes calls which are completely unique to themselves. It is even believed that some clicks represent individual names.

Mimicking has been observed in the past

In the past killer whales have been known to mimic sea lions barking and the whistles of dolphins. Beluga whales have been filmed mimicking humans but until this study, no controlled experiments have been conducted to verify these claims. In this experiment, Wikie was trained to understand a signal for ‘copy’ and was then asked to repeat 11 completely new sounds given to her by her trainer. The sounds included a wolf howl, an elephant call, a creaking door and human words.

Repeating words and sounds in real time

The orca was rewarded with a fish or affectionate pat when she repeated the sound correctly to reinforce the learning and there were six judges on hand who were asked to rate whether her vocalisation matched the original word or noise. The researchers reached the conclusion that Wikie was able to make recognisable copies of the sounds in real time.

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