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

Muriel Hammond
February 1, 2018

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.

High-pitched, eerie and yet distinct, the sound of a voice calling the name "Amy" is unmistakable.

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

Whales and dolphins can actually learn how to produce a sound by hearing it, the BBC reports.

Researchers believe they may be able to have basic "conversations" with Wikie one day.

Claire Bass, UK director of the Humane Society International, said Wikie's ability to imitate human speech "is as tragic as she is fascinating". She easily developed sounds resembling a creaking door and the blowing of a raspberry. The scientific study is well conceived and thoroughly done (please see the abstract at the end of this article), and essentially was done to validate that orcas can learn dialects from both conspecifics and humans.

The star of this latest study, Wikie had already been trained to respond to a "copy" command as part of previous research into imitative learning in orcas.


So, scientists chose to find out whether killer whales could learn new vocalizations by imitating others. This is thought to be the first of its kind to copy human speech by a whale. Killer whales have previously been observed mimicking other marine animals like the whistle of the sea dolphins and barks of the sea lion.

"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.

The team tested a 14-year-old female orca called Wilkie with multiple sounds in different scenarios, including using loudspeakers.

Remarkably, field observations of killer whales have documented the existence of group-differentiated vocal dialects that are often referred to as traditions or cultures and are hypothesized to be acquired non-genetically.

Diana Reiss, an expert in dolphin communication and professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of NY, welcomed the research, noting that it extends our understanding of orcas' vocal abilities, with Wikie able to apply a "copy" command learned for imitation of actions to imitation of sounds.

Wikie was given a fish or an affectionate pat when she achieved the sound to reinforce the learning. She can also say "Amy" (her trainer) and "one, two, three". Sounds made under the water may be quite different. A similar process was done for the second round, but with all human sounds.

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