An orca that can distinctly imitate human speech has scientists Flipper-ing out.
A team of international researchers taught Wikie, a 14-year-old female killer whale living an aquarium in France, to clearly mimic such words as “hello,” “Amy,” “ah ha” “one two” and “bye bye.” She also duped the sound of blowing a raspberry.
Wikie isn’t the first animal that’s been able to reproduce human sounds. Parrots, dolphins, elephants, orangutans and beluga whales have done that through various means, according to the Guardian.
But Wikie’s vocalizations, detailed in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, are a first for a killer whale. The orca’s keen ability to copy human speech goes beyond being a pool-party trick.
Scientists report that the discovery helps to illuminate wild orca behavior and communication, as well as shed light on how different pods of killer whales have ended up with distinct dialects. The research builds upon earlier research into killer whale movements.
“We wanted to see how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds,” said study co-author Josep Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St. Andrews. “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.”
Researchers describe Wikie as a quick study over the study’s various trials. The orca was usually able to copy sounds within 10 attempts and sometimes nailed it on the first try.
Orcas aren’t alone when it comes to vocalizing sounds that mimic human speech: parrots, elephants and organutans have been there and done that.
“The results reported here show that killer whales have evolved the ability to control sound production and qualify as open-ended vocal learners,” scientists concluded.
But Call acknowledged that animals’ ability to replicate sounds of words isn’t the same as comprehending what they’re doing. “We have no evidence,” he told the Guardian, “that they understand what their ‘hello’ stands for.”