Scientists Trained an Orca to Imitate Human Speech

Image: Minette Layne/Wikipedia Commons

Wikie the killer whale has a lot to say.

She lives at Marineland, an amusement park in the South of France, where she’s been trained to perform tricks for visitors — and now, she’s participating in groundbreaking research.

Recently, a team of researchers set out to determine whether orcas, who are famously vocal creatures within their family pods and are adept at learning skills in captivity from their trainers, could mimic human speech.

Image: Creative Commons

The researchers played Wikie sounds made by orcas with different dialects than hers and asked her to mimic them. Once she had that down, they asked her to repeat human words.

Wikie was able to make sounds that are very different from the way we vocalize words, but nonetheless recognizable. She can say, “hello,” “bye-bye,” “one-two-three,” and repeat the name of her trainer, “Amy.”

Listen to the sounds:

Researcher Jose Abramson, who published the findings of the experiment in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society Bsaid though the whale doesn’t know the meaning of the words she’s saying, Wikie’s ability to mimic confirms what marine mammal experts have long known: orcas are highly intelligent creatures.

It’s also an indication of the potential for more learning, and a demonstration of evolution at work.

“One of the main things that fired the evolution of human intelligence is the ability to have social learning, to imitate, and to have culture,” Abramson told AFP. “If you find that other species have also the capacity for social learning, and of complex social learning that could be imitation or teaching, you expect a lot of flexibility in that species.”

Other species are good mimics as well, including parrots, beluga whales, dolphins, seals, and some elephants. Primates, while not typically adept at vocalizing the way people do, have been observed learning the meanings of lots of human words and phrases.

So next time you’re out whale watching, be sure to say, “Hello.” You might just get a greeting in return.

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