Beluga whales can vocalize in a way remarkably close to human speech – or at least one of them can, according to new observations described in the journal Current Biology. The discovery came as a shocker to scientists, who previously knew that dolphins sometimes mimic the patterns and durations of human speech but had no evidence that an animal may spontaneously put its vocal skills to such a mimicry test.
The BBC reports on the whale tale that sparked the surprise:
The first mystery was figuring out where the sound was coming from.
When a diver at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in California surfaced saying, “Who told me to get out?” the researchers there knew they had another example on their hands.
The whales are known as “canaries of the sea” for their high-pitched chirps, but while a number of anecdotal reports have described whales making human-like speech, none had ever been recorded.
Once they identified NOC as the culprit, they caught it on tape.
When the scientists analyzed the tape, they found that NOC’s vocal bursts averaged about three per second, with pauses interspersed similar to human speech. The frequencies within those bursts resembled human “harmonics” rather than whales’ normal vocalization patterns.
They went on to teach NOC to make the speech-like sounds on command and fitted him with a pressure transducer in his nasal cavity to investigate the way the whale was pulling off the unique vocalizations. It turned out the sounds were due to a rapid change in pressure within his nasal cavity, which he amplified by over-inflating a sac in his blowhole that is normally used to stop water from entering the lungs.
In short, the BBC concludes, the mimicry was no easy task for the determined whale, who the researchers say clearly demonstrates a case of vocal learning.
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