Published: Wed, January 31, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

Killer whales can imitate human speech and blow raspberries, says new study

Killer whales can imitate human speech and blow raspberries, says new study

Scientist claim to have recorded the sound of an Orca whale speaking English.

When researchers trained Wikie to mimic human words through the blowhole, she surprised everyone.

The animal's repertoire includes the name "Amy" and "one, two, three".

Whales are among the few animals other than humans that can learn to produce a novel sound just by hearing it. 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".

"Humans obviously are good at it..."

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However Wikie, who lives in a French marine theme park in Antibes, is believed to be the first member of her species to mimic human speech. So, scientists made a decision to find out whether killer whales could learn new vocalizations by imitating others.

The human sounds she copied included a laugh and the words "hello", "bye bye", "Amy" and "one two three". Killer whales, also called orcas, are known for their unique ability to imitate other orcas in their group.

The study also shows that the creatures are able to copy unfamiliar sounds produced by other orcas - including a sound similar to blowing a raspberry.

"Therefore this result suggests this is also a plausible explanation for how killer whales in the wild learn the vocalisations of other killer whales and how they develop their dialects".

"But you have to be careful about imposing our human concepts on animals".

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Breakfast presenters Dan Walker and Louise Minchin were left in fits of giggles today as they listened to a whale being taught to mimic human speech.

Dr Irene Pepperberg, an expert in parrot cognition at Harvard University, also described the study as exciting, but said: "A stronger test would have been whether the various sounds produced could be correctly classified by humans without the models present for comparison".

"You can not pick a word that is very complicated because then I think you are asking too much - we wanted things that were short but were also distinctive", said Call.

"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"'. "We will gain more if we try to understand the natural way each species communicates in its own environment than if we try to teach a human language". Then Wikie was exposed to five orca sounds she had never heard before.

In each trial, the killer whale was given a "do that" hand signal by a researcher, but offered no food reward. 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.

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