Killer whale 'repeats human speech' - study (AUDIO, POLL)

Killer whale learns to imitate human speech in world first

Orca learns mimic human speech

Wikie, a 16-year-old female orca living in a French marine theme park, has been recorded copying words such as hello and Amy, as well as counting one, two, three.

Scientists have taught a killer whale to imitate human speech, in a new study released on January 31.

The whale words were also analysed in waveform and matched the human words when the acoustical recordings were compared.

The trainer gave Wikie a fish to eat or patted her with love to reinforce learning.

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

Wikie wraps her tongue around the word "hello", in one of the study trials.

The story is available in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, in a paper titled, Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca). According to the research team, the discovery of orcas can say "hello", "bye-bye" and "one-two-three' is helpful in studying different pods of savage killer whales that ended up with specific dialects, focusing on the idea that they can be the result of replica between orcas". They included words and also noises such as an elephant call, a wolf howl and a creaking door. When asked to repeat the sounds, there was a fair amount of variability in her vocalizations, something the researchers say could be due to the simple difficulty of producing the sounds or even different levels of motivation between sessions. "Hello" is the only word she can say correctly more than 50 percent of the time, but acoustic analysis proved Wikie is indeed making an effort to say the words she's being taught. Orca dialects are therefore thought by some researchers to be evidence of "social learning", of traditions or cultures passed on geographically and down generations by non-genetic means.

Co-author of the study Joseph Call professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews said, "In mammals, it is very rare". Both bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales have been observed copying noises they are exposed to. How, and why they are able to do so varies, though the researchers do note that Wikie was producing the sounds in the open air, as opposed to under water as she normally would.

The Marineland study adds evidence that the whales are indeed capable of modifying their own speech patterns in response to hearing new sounds. 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.

The new study's findings suggest that killer whales can learn and imitate new sounds by listening to them.

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