For the first time, a killer whale has been taught to mimic the sounds of a human language, by creepily squeaking out noises that sound like "hello", "bye bye", and even “Amy”, the name of her trainer.
So, is this really the “world's first talking killer whale”? Not exactly, but it does certainly raise a bunch of interesting questions about mammal intelligence and the nature of social learning.
The star of the research is Wikie, a 14-year-old female orca held at the Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, southern France. For a new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid used her to test the killer whale’s ability to learn and imitate sounds, especially those made by human vocalization.
After receiving training, the orca was able to repeat a set of words said by her trainer, including "hello", "bye bye", “ah ha”, “Amy”, and "one-two-three”. She was also able to blow a raspberry back at her trainer.
It often took numerous attempts to get Wikie to repeat the noises during the trials, plus it’s fair to say that you won’t be fooled into thinking that the noises are made by a human. However, the scientists looked at the waveform of the sound waves produced and they did match up fairly neatly with the human speech.
While this is an undoubtedly impressive display of orca intelligence, it’s worth remembering that this is not language and the orca is not “talking” as such. Wikie appears to have no clue about the words’ meanings or implications, she is simply repeating them back in “parrot-fashion”, so to speak.
Nevertheless, the work serves as further proof that killer whales are undeniably smart. Through demonstrating this ability to learn a set of fairly complex vocalizations, Wikie has shown just how orcas are extremely flexible in their ability to imitate and therefore capable of some fairly profound social intelligence.
"One of the main things that fired the evolution of human intelligence is the ability to have social learning, to imitate, and to have culture,” researcher Jose Abramson of the Complutense University of Madrid told AFP. "So if you find that other species have also the capacity for social learning, and of complex social learning that could be imitation or teaching, you expect a lot of flexibility in that species."
Orcas are not the only species in the animal kingdom capable of muttering noises that imitate human speech. Previous reports have seen parrots, orangutans, and even beluga whales pick up human words through vocal learning. There was even an Asian elephant called Koshik who could mimic Korean words using his trunk.