Scientists have demonstrated for the first time that orcas, also known as killer whales, can mimic human words, including “Amy,” “Bye-Bye” and “One-Two-Three.”
Wikie, a 14-year-old female killer whale housed at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, was tested by researchers including José Z. Abramson to get her to speak.
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.”
“We found that the subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel conspecific and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly (most during the first 10 trials and three in the first attempt),” the study’s abstract reads. “Our results lend support to the hypothesis that the vocal variants observed in natural populations of this species can be socially learned by imitation. The capacity for vocal imitation shown in this study may scaffold the natural vocal traditions of killer whales in the wild.”
The study was comprised of three phases: retraining and reinforcing to understand “copy”; vocalizing sounds that Wikie had already performed herself; and testing with novel or different sounds previously unknown to Wikie.
According to AFP by way of CBS News, with her head above water, Wikie looks at her trainers, listens to them speak, and then vocalizes “Hello.”
In an interview with AFP, Abramson said that the researchers did not exactly know what to expect from the experiment.
“When we tried ‘hello’ and she did the sound … some emotional responses came from the trainers,” Abramson said. “For us (scientists) it was very difficult not to say anything…”
Recordings of Wiki speaking can be heard here.
Though the recordings are not perfect, they are recognizable, including when she says, “Amy,” the name of her trainer.
While mimicking is often a sign of intelligence in animals, Abramson said it does not mean Wikie understands what she is saying, and no context or meaning were provided to the words during the study.
“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,” Abramson told AFP. “So if you find that other species have also the capacity for social learning, and of complex social learning that could be imitation or teaching, you expect a lot of flexibility in that species.”
The study, which was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, notes that vocalization is a “hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fuelled the evolution of human culture.”
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