A “talking” orca is impressing researchers and the Internet with her ability to mimic human speech, and is shedding new light on the way orcas communicate.
In audio released by researchers, an orca named Wikie is heard attempting to mimic English words like “hello”, “bye bye” and “one, two, three”, as well as the name of her trainer, Amy. She also chirps like a bird, howls like a wolf, and blows raspberries – the last sound she apparently enjoys making a lot.
Researchers studying orca communication want to learn how orcas learn their unique dialects. Orcas are known to have distinctive dialects between pods. The marine mammals vocalize and communicate using “clicks”, “whistles” and song-like hums. But how do they pick up these special dialects and individual sounds?
Imitating vocal sounds is a key component of language, and the ability to do so is rare in mammals besides humans. But killer whales have been observed imitating bottlenose dolphins and sea lions. And now humans.
“Killer whales use their blowhole to make noises, almost like speaking out of your nose, so we were not expecting it to be perfect,” said Dr Jose Abramson, a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid, who led the study. “But we were surprised by how close it was.”
“I think here we have the first evidence that killer whales may be learning sounds by vocal imitation, and this is something that could be the basis of the dialects we observe in the wild – it is plausible,” said Josep Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews and a co-author of the study.
Wikie is a captive-born orca and lives at Marineland in Antibes, France. People listening to the video are equally impressed by the whale’s understanding and attempts, rather than her accuracy.
One redditor wrote, “I think that people aren’t really understanding that the remarkable thing isn’t really how accurate the ‘speech’ is, but the fact that they are very clearly attempting to try in the first place when they don’t really vocalize that way naturally, unlike say a parrot, who can imitate speech, but in the same way it usually screeches. Whales…trying to imitate human like speech at all is pretty impressive and shows interesting cognition.”
The scientists thought the ability of Wilkie to imitate new noises may provide some insight into the process by which whales imitate the sounds they hear in the wild, and acquire dialects.
Listen to Wikie’s attempts at talking in the video below.
The video below contains a few more sounds Wikie imitates like a creaking door and a wolf.