WATCH: A researcher in France has taught a captive killer whale to imitate human speech including words like hello and bye. April Lawrence gets the reaction.
Scientists in France have taught a captive killer whale to imitate human speech and have recorded it repeating words like “hello”, “1-2-3” and “bye bye”.
Wikie, a 14-year-old captive-born orca at Marineland Aquarium, in France, imitated the words well enough that they were recognized by six humans who heard recorded clips of its voice, report researchers in a paper published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
Author Mark Leiren-Young has studied orcas for years and when he listened to the recordings he said there’s no question the whale is talking.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they’re smart enough, it surprises me they’re capable of doing it with a blowhole, remember they’ve got no vocal chords right?” Leiren-Young said.
One researcher says he heard an orca do something similar years ago.
“I was listening and I heard the sound of a motorboat go by and I looked around and there was no motor boat there, it was a whale imitating the sound of a motorboat,” said OrcaLab research station creator Dr Paul Spong.
Spong says orcas use dialects passed down from generation to generation but they’re also capable of imitating the sounds of other killer whale clans.
“They are very very flexible in terms of the sounds they make so in that sense I guess it’s not that surprising,” he said.
Even if it’s just the cadence and rhythm they’re copying, Leiren-Young says it’s incredible.
“We’ve been trying to learn how to speak orca for the better part of 50 years,” he said.
“The fact that they’ve got any of our language means they’re much faster than picking this up than we are.”