Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

Wikie is not the first animal to have managed the feat of producing human sounds: dolphins, elephants, parrots, orangutans and even beluga whales have all been captured mimicking our utterances, although they use a range of physical mechanisms to us to do so.

Researchers have taught a captive killer whale to blow raspberries and mimic the word "hello" with its head above water.

Andrews and the University of Vienna trained the 14-year-old female at the Marineland aquarium in Antibes, France, in order to probe the lengths of the orca's vocal repertoire. Comparative evidence has revealed that although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is mostly uniquely human among primates, a few distantly related taxa of birds and mammals have also independently evolved this capacity.

Though the recordings are not ideal, they are recognizable, including when she says, "Amy", the name of her trainer.

As she learnt to copy commands, she was trained to imitate voices of familiar ocra sounds made by her three-year-old calf Moana.

In the wild, killer whales live in pods and each has its own dialect, which includes calls that are completely unique to themselves.

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Sounds that humans make while speaking exist far outside the regular range that killer whales, Orcinus orca, usually make. It is for the first time that a mammal has been able to copy human words. Researchers suspected this was the case, but hadn't gathered enough evidence of orcas learning and mimicking sounds.

And in 2006, scientists reported in the journal Biology Letters that a killer whale in Nootka Sound, British Columbia, could imitate a sea lion's bark - likely because the orca was solitary "and striving for attention", said Griffin, one of the researchers who analyzed those calls. What's more, two human utterances and all of the human-produced orca sounds were managed on the first attempt - although only one human sound - "hello" - was correctly produced more than 50% of the time on subsequent trials. Using this command, an worldwide team of researchers have now taught Wikie to blow raspberries, mimic a creaky door, say hello and bye bye, and repeat numbers, all with her head above water.

However, Wikie can not understand the words she was taught by the researchers.

Instead, it's simply a demonstration of orcas' ability to learn and repeat new sounds, a skill that may be at the heart of some puzzling behavior observed in the wild. She was then exposed to five different orca sounds that were unfamiliar to her.

However, the findings published in theProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences do not imply that the killer whales were also capable of discerning the meaning of the sounds they mimicked.

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