Whales produce beautiful, eerie and intricate songs that build and evolve overtime. Now, as the BBC reports, researchers have found that one species, orca whales, can also learn to mimic human words—a discovery that may explain how their own language changes with time.
Researchers were interested to see if orca whales could mimic unfamiliar sounds. As Nicola Davis reports for The Guardian, researchers believed their adept imitation skills could explain how orca pods develop different dialects overtime. And they have been known to be copycats: Orcas copy the movements of other killer whales and some evidence suggests they can also mimic sea lions and bottle-nosed dolphins.
So the scientists enlisted the help of a female whale named Wikie at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. This particular orca was a good candidate for the project because her trainer had already taught her a gesture that the creature knew meant she should copy her trainer's movements, reports Agence-France Presse. Wikie was first directed to copy the sounds of other orcas from family groups with different dialects she had never heard before. Then she was instructed to copy human words including the name “Amy,” “hello,” “1,2,3,” "bye-bye" and the sound of a raspberry.
Her pronunciation is not perfect, but she can be heard distinctly trying to copy the syllables and cadence of the words. Her “hello” is particularly good and her raspberry is right on. The research appears in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Joseph Call, co-author of the study and professor of evolution at the University of St Andrews tells Davis that there are very few animals with both the brain power and vocal hardware to mimic human speech. “That is what makes it even more impressive–even though the morphology [of orcas] is so different, they can still produce a sound that comes close to what another species, in this case us, can produce,” he says.
So will we one day be able to sit by ocean and have a chat with a whale? It’s unlikely that Wikie knows what any of the sounds she’s learned means, but someday she might. “Yes, it's conceivable,” co-author Jose Abramson, from Complutense University of Madrid tells the BBC, “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'.”
As Luke Rendell, a biologist at the University of St. Andrews not involved in the study, writes for The Conversation, orcas aren’t the only creatures known to mimic human speech. Parrots and several bird species, of course, are masters of mimicry. Elephants, bottle-nosed dolphins and seals have also been taught to mimic speech. In 1984, a Beluga whale named Noc could imitate human sounds so well it was able to fool scuba divers.
The most important insight from Wikie’s speech, however, is what it tells us about wild orcas. Rendell writes that researchers have noticed that when orca pods move to a new location, their vocalizations often change over time to match whales in the area. This suggests that the whales are learning and that they have a “cultural inheritance”—they learn from their family and pod. Instead of trying to make whales and dolphins learn to speak with us, he argues, we should look deeper into how they communicate with one another to better understand how they have evolved.