April 23, 2018

Killer whales can imitate human speech and blow raspberries, says new study

01 February 2018, 12:38 | Francis Delgado

Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

Wikie  a 16-year-old female orca 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 sounds emerge as parrot-like squawks shrill whistles or raspberries but most

Scientists have taught a killer whale to imitate human speech, in a new study released on January 31.

High-pitched, eerie and yet distinct, the sound of a voice calling the name "Amy" is unmistakable.

However, the killer whale is impressive in reproducing the sounds, even though an orca's vocal anatomy is different from that of humans.

The human words and phrases she attempted to copy included "ah ah", "hello", "bye bye", "Amy", "one two" and "one two three". The scientists were also quick to pour water on any suggestions that their research indicated Wikie was able to comprehend the sounds she was making as communication. The Orca made sounds like a creaking door, a strong raspberry, a wolf and an elephant.

They eat marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and even whales, and are known to grab seals right off the ice.

Wikie was taught to copy sounds and words from her three-year-old calf Moana and humans.

But researchers say only a fraction of the animal kingdom can mimic human speech, with brain pathways and vocal apparatus both thought to determine whether it is possible. They report that she made recognisable copies of all the sounds, usually within the first 10 attempts, and sometimes straight away.

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Recently scientists have discovered that whales have different "accents" or "cultures" and the new study suggests that those differences are picked up when young through imitation of adults, in a similar way to how children learn to speak through copying.

"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", said Call.

Imitating vocal sounds in this way is a key component of language, and the ability to do so is rare in mammals besides humans. She didn't always make ideal copies - as you can hear in the audio above - but the sounds were still recognizable, both by blinded independent assessors and by sound file analysis. Killer whales, also called orcas, are known for their unique ability to imitate other orcas in their group.

Though the recordings are not ideal, they are recognizable, including when she says, "Amy", the name of her trainer.

Wikie had previously participated in an action imitation study, so she already knew the "copy" command, giving her a leg (or a fin) up when it came to "speaking".

Orcas naturally communicate in the wild, vocalizing three distinct types of sounds: clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls, according to Orcalab.

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