Killer whale Wikie learns to 'speak' human words

Killer whale is taught how to speak through its blowhole and may soon chat with humans

Neither Abramson's team nor the staff at Marineland have any plans to turn Wikie's speaking prowess into a show for the benefit of visitors, but the achievement helps to shed light on an important aspect of previously recorded wild orca behaviour.

The orca also manages an eerie whisper that does sound remarkably like "Amy".

The scientists working on the research have discovered that the different pods of wild killer whales have their own distinct dialect like humans have according to region.

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

Josep Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews and a co-author of the study said, "The experiment was conducted to learn how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds". "We thought what would be really convincing is to present them with something that is not in their repertoire - and in this case "hello" [is] not what a killer whale would say".

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This is key to their ability to mimic human speech. Call said that they wanted to see how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds. "There is no evidence yet now to prove that the ocra understand "hello", added Call. "One of the main things that fired the evolution of human intelligence is the ability to have social learning, to imitate, and to have culture".

Seeking to measure orcas' ability to copy new sounds, Abramson and a team turned to Wikie, a captive killer whale at the Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, southern France.

Though the recordings are not flawless, they are recognizable, including when she says, "Amy", the name of her trainer. Results showed that Wilkie made "recognizable copies" of the sounds, both human and orca, relatively quickly.

Wikie's calf, a three-year-old whale named Moana, was taught to make five unique sounds that could then be used to test his mother.

A killer whale living in captivity has surprised scientists by allegedly learning to "speak" human words through its blowhole.

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Wikie is also said to have learnt how to say English words such as "hello" and "bye bye" and "Amy" - her trainer's name. This 16-year-old female orca imitates human sound.

In recordings of the experiment, Wikie takes several stabs at "hello". Cetacean brains are different, the context for communication varies, and in in the water medium where they evolved sound behaves differently.

"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 Call, noting that to further test the idea, trials would have to be carried out with wild orcas.

A team of global researchers have taught a female orca whale to imitate human speech, documenting what is considered to be a world first in a paper published Wednesday.

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