Wikie is world's first killer whale that can talk like humans

01 February, 2018, 01:07 | Author: Harriet Bell
  • File 20180130 107676

We found that the subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel conspecific and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly (most during the first 10 trials and three in the first attempt). She was able to say words like "hello", "Amy", one, two, three and "bye bye". It can also blow raspberries. The same cannot be said for toothed cetaceans (think whales and dolphins) as they produce sounds in their nasal passages, thus making Wikie's audible performance even more remarkable.

"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", Josep Call, a professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St. Andrews, told The Guardian.

New research, complete with haunting recordings, shows that orcas are shockingly good at imitating human speech.

Wikie, a 16-year-old female orca living in a French marine theme park, is able to copy words such as "hello", "bye bye" and "Amy", as well as count to three. "The results show that evolution has endowed killer whales with sophisticated imitative capacities and supports the hypothesis that the dialects that have been documented in this species and in other cetaceans can be acquired and maintained through social learning and, more specifically, through imitation".

Call and colleagues believe that this astute ability to learn sounds by vocal imitation lies at the very core of the orca dialects observed in the wild. If killer whales move pods or are displaced into a different one, the sounds they make to communicate with fellow killer whales adapt to the new environment.

The achievement is even more remarkable because whales do not have the same vocal ability as humans having evolved to make their own sounds underwater.

This is key to their ability to mimic human speech.

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Dr Jose Abramson, from Complutense de Madrid University in Spain, said: "Yes, it's conceivable ... if you have labels, descriptions of what things are".

"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"'.

"But you have to be careful about imposing our human concepts on animals".

To be absolutely clear, there is no evidence that Wikie understood the sounds she was making. When we tried "hello" and she did the sound... some emotional responses came from the trainers. Visual illustrations of the recorded sounds showed that the "bursts" of sound that they made closely matched the bursts in the sound that they were hearing.

Wikie is a wild killer whale, or orca, which is part of the oceanic dolphins' family. They can mimic the sound of bottlenose dolphins and sea lions.

The experiments, carried out at her home at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes two years ago, are reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.


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