In Marineland in Antibes in the South of France, researchers have succeeded in getting an orca named Wikie to repeat different words from the English language. It is not a perfect imitation, such as can be achieved by parrots, but the words are surprisingly recognisable.
Previous works have shown that orcas can imitate sounds made by other whales, but also dolphins. And we also know that they use different dialects depending on the groups they belong to, showing that the learning process varies between groups. But learning to speak like humans? “We expected recognisable imitations, in which Wikie would copy the tonality, the sound melody or even the rhythm of the syllables. But we never expected such a good imitation”, José Abramson of the Complutense University in Madrid told the AFP. Co-author of a study which appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B two weeks ago, he adds that “the vocal anatomy of orcas, and more generally of all cetaceans, is totally different from that of humans”.
When Wikie “spoke” for the first time, the researcher admitted that it was difficult to contain his joy, which was made even more pronounced by the fact that the team had no idea what the results of this experiment might be. This is the first scientific demonstration in which an orca imitated a series of human words, including the words “Amy” (the name of Wikie’s carer), “Bye Bye” and “One-Two-Three”, all of which were pronounced fairly well.
Although for certain scientists, the ability to learn from other species exists only in humans, for José Abramson, this experiment shows that “a large part of orcas’ cognitive abilities or intelligence depends on social learning, getting to know other family members“, and not only on genetic endowment. The researcher however specified that just because the whale can imitate words, it obviously doesn’t mean that she understands what she is saying -repeating being different from truly speaking.
Apart from parrots -who have well documented imitation abilities -belugas, dolphins, seals and an Asian elephant have been identified as having the ability to mimic human language. Wikie’s recordings can be found on the website figshare.