There aren’t many animals on the planet capable of mimicking human speech, but new research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week illuminates how killer whales might have their own spot on that extremely limited list.
Image Credit: Pixabay
Meet Wikie, a 14-year-old killer whale from Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. Curious researchers interacted with Wikie in an attempt to learn more about how killer whales communicate. Astonishingly, Wikie learned very quickly to repeat words like “hello,” “Amy,” and “Bye” after her handler said them first.
These aren’t overly-complex words, and the orca didn’t mutter them as fluently as a human would, but it’s a start nevertheless. In fact, researchers think this data could help them understand how killer whales learn communication amongst one another in the wild.
You can listen to the imitations yourself via the embedded video below:
"The killer whale that we studied in captivity was capable of learning vocalizations of other killer whales and also human vocalizations by imitating them," noted study co-author Dr. Josep Call from the University of St. Andrews.
"Therefore, this result suggests this is also a plausible explanation for how killer whales in the wild learn the vocalizations of other killer whales and how they develop their dialects."
The sounds didn’t come from the killer whale’s mouth, but instead her blowhole. The entire vocalization system differs significantly from a human’s, so it’s no surprise that it sounded vastly different from a person talking.
If the study shows anything significant, it’s that Wikie heard her handler loud and clear and could repeat the spoken words accordingly. On the other hand, it doesn’t prove that she understood the words’ meanings, and she probably didn’t.
Unfortunately, researchers don’t know enough about what’s happening in Wikie’s mind when she imitates words, so it’s challenging to gauge her level of comprehension.
Additional research could determine whether this is a hidden talent of Wikie’s or if wild orcas exhibit similar abilities. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.