Science

Killer whale reported to imitate human speech

Killer whale reported to imitate human speech

A killer whale can say things like "hello", "bye-bye" and "one two three" after a team of scientists taught her to imitate human speech sounds.

"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", Call said.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, researchers from institutions in Germany, UK, Spain and Chile, describe how they carried out the latest research with Wikie, a 14-year-old female orca living in an aquarium in France.

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

"The results reported here show that killer whales have evolved the ability to control sound production and qualify as open-ended vocal learners", the scientists conclude.

Her vocabulary only includes a handful of words, but with them, an orca at a French marine facility is proving that cetaceans can be taught how to pronounce specific sounds with their blowholes.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) said orcas belong in the wild where each family has its own "culture and a unique group dialect".

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The human words and phrases she attempted to copy included "ah ah", "hello", "bye bye", "Amy", "one two" and "one two three".

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, yet in other animals it is strikingly rare.

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

The question now on everyone's mind, of course, is whether we'll ever be able to actually talk to these sea creatures-and one of the researchers who worked on the study told BBC News that, indeed, the project's success suggests rudimentary conversations with a trained orca may one day be possible. "It has been done before with a famous grey parrot and dolphins using American sign language; sentences like "bring me this object" or "put this object above or below the other". Sounds made under the water may be quite different.

"You have to be careful about imposing our human concepts on animals". And since this was just the one whale, the researchers are unsure whether there are more copy-cat killer whales in the wild.

Past year the company vowed to fight a ban on breeding killer whales and dolphins in captivity, claiming it would harm its animals.

Whales are known for their impressive communications skills which allow pods to "talk" to each other through complex clicks and singing, even when they are 100 miles apart. Even beluga whales have been observed copying humans but so far, no controlled experiments have been conducted to verify the reports.


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