FRANCE — From the water, a high-pitched squeak calls out “hello” but the sound is not coming from a human, it’s a whale.
A team of international researchers have taught a female orca whale to imitate human speech, documenting what is considered to be a world first in a paper published Wednesday.
Using Wikie the whale, who lives at the Marineland Aquarium in southern France as their test subject, scientists discovered a whale could learn new vocalizations by imitating its trainer.
Wikie was able to repeat a handful of words including “hello,” “bye bye,” “one, two” and “Amy.”
“We found that the subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel conspecific and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly (most during the first 10 trials and three in the first attempt),” the experts revealed in their paper.
Most mammals use the larynx to produce sound and as humans we are able to speak in part because of the motor ability we possess. The same can not be said for toothed cetaceans (think whales and dolphins) as they produce sounds in their nasal passages, thus making Wikie’s audible performance even more remarkable.
To determine whether an orca whale really could learn new vocalizations, Josep Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews and a co-author of the study, explained how the team chose human sounds, which are not already in the whale’s repertoire.
“Human sounds are easily recognizable by us and if they could produce a human sound that is not in their normal repertoire, that would mean that the only way they could learn it is by listening to it and reproducing it. And that’s what we did,” Call told CNN.
In the wild, killer whales live in pods and are known to have different dialects, but there has been intense debate in the scientific community around how this came to be.
Call said one of the explanations postulated is that it is a learned ability, but nobody had been able to demonstrate that until now.
“Our study shows that our vocal learnings, even of sounds that are not in the killer whale repertoire, is plausible,” he said.
“After one has done it, one of the next questions is, can all killer whales do it? How widespread is this ability? Maybe Wikie is special, an exception, but maybe not,” he continued.
In the paper, researchers explained that vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language but in other animals it occurs less often. Call explained that dolphins and beluga whales have been known to copy sounds from other species while some birds, like parrots for example, are known to mimic sounds.
But don’t get too excited about the prospect of speaking to whales just yet. The scientists were also quick to pour water on any suggestions that their research indicated Wikie was able to comprehend the sounds she was making as communication.
“It was not about establishing a two way communication between killer whales and humans… I doubt it sincerely,” he said. “We have no evidence that (Wikie) thinks she is greeting someone in the morning and saying ‘hello.'”
But he remains hopeful, saying that future research could be developed to explore if it was possible for whales to comprehend the sounds they are making.
“Whether they could use this vocalization, these sounds they produce, whether they could use them to interact with humans or with other killer whales is a an open question, it’s a fascinating question,” he added.