Killer whale Wikie proves orcas can mimic human speech


Scientists have demonstrated for the first time that orcas, also known as killer whales, can mimic human words, including "Amy", "Bye-Bye" and "One-Two-Three".

Another standout copycat, the lyrebird, mimics not only other animals, but also the sounds of construction equipment and auto horns, demonstrating its prowess in the 2009 documentary series "BBC Earth".

"Wikie succeeded in copying all sounds regardless of whether they were produced by a model of the same species, either live or through a speaker, or by a human model", Complutense University of Madrid (link in Spanish) said in a statement. They studied Wikie at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France.

Throughout the study, Wikie's success was first judged by her two trainers and then confirmed from recordings by six independent adjudicators who compared them to the original sound, without knowing which was which.

Orcas have previously been shown to make vocalizations that they learned from their mothers and from other groups, a skill that served as a basis for the new experiments.

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, yet in other animals it is strikingly rare. In fact, an African grey parrot recently garnered headlines by mimicking human speech so accurately that the bird was referenced in a murder trial, allegedly for speaking what may have been its owner's last words before the man was killed. "We have no evidence that (Wikie) thinks she is greeting someone in the morning and saying 'hello'".

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He said: "It's conceivable. if you have labels, descriptions of what things are".

The scientists thought the ability of Wilkie to imitate new noises may provide some insight into the process by which whales imitate the sounds they hear in the wild, and acquire dialects. And since this was just the one whale, the researchers are unsure whether there are more copy-cat killer whales in the wild.

While the sounds were all made and copied when the animals' heads were out of the water, Call said the study shed light on orca behaviour. Wikie was exposed to 11 novel sounds, some of which were unfamiliar whale sounds while others were human utterances like "Amy", an "ah ah" laughing sound and "bye bye" - among others.

Killer whales, or orcas, are the largest of the dolphins and one of the world's most powerful predators.

A 2012 study in the journal Current Biology reported a male Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) that could convincingly imitate some Korean words.

"They have even been known to imitate bottlenose dolphins and sea lions", said Dr Abramson.