The killer whale that may say 'whats up' and 'bye bye'

Herbert Rhodes
February 1, 2018

A female orca at a marine park in France has learned a handful of words and can mimic human language, according to scientists.

A high-pitched and eerie voice uttering the name "Amy" is quite clear in the audio released by the study's researchers.

Wikie achieved the groundbreaking feat after scientists exposed her to human sounds in a bid to understand how capable whales are of imitating noises as part of a wider effort to understand how they learn in their own habitat.

"Wikie succeeded in copying all sounds regardless of whether they were produced by a model of the same species, either live or through a speaker, or by a human model", Complutense University of Madrid (link in Spanish) said in a statement.

Wikie also copied the trainer in saying words like hello and goodbye. The orca could also imitate a wolf's howl, an elephant's trumpeting, and the sounds of a creaking door and a "raspberry".

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"In sum, Wikie made recognizable copies of the demonstrated sound judged in real time by two observers, Wikie's trainer and one experimenter, later confirmed by both after listening to the recordings", the researchers said.

Scientists say the discovery helps to shed light on how different pods of wild killer whales have ended up with distinct dialects, adding weight to the idea that they are the result of imitation between orcas.

"Yes, it's conceivable ... if you have labels, descriptions of what things are", he said. In two instances, Wilkie was able to mimic the human sound on the first attempt. Killer whales have previously been observed mimicking other marine animals like the whistle of the sea dolphins and barks of the sea lion.

To determine whether the original sounds and Wikie's versions matched, the researchers asked human judges to decide, and then ran computer algorithms to provide a more objective assessment of the similarities. The findings suggest that a captive whale's ability to deftly mimic unfamiliar noises hints that imitation likely plays an important role in building orcas' unique "vocal traditions". Previous sessions with Wikie had already trained her to respond to a "do this" command for a fish reward, the study authors reported.

Orcas can say "hello", "bye-bye" and "one-two-three", while the voice doesn't make a flawless mimicry, but sounds impressively identifiable. Cetacean brains are different, the context for communication varies, and in in the water medium where they evolved sound behaves differently.

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