Wikie is world's first killer whale that can talk like humans

A wild killer whale. One of the animals in captivity has been taught to speak human words

A killer whale can say things like "hello", "bye-bye" and "one two three" after a team of scientists taught her to imitate human speech sounds.

Scientists have taught a killer whale to imitate human speech, in a new study released on January 31.

In the new trial, Wikie was trained to understand a "copy" signal then invited to repeat 11 completely new sounds given by her trainer.

Researchers recently found that a female killer whale could copy the phrases "hello", "bye-bye", "Amy", and "one, two, three".

After listening to the human or whale sound, Wikie was requested to reproduce them by her trainer saying "do this".

"We have no evidence that they understand what their "hello" stands for", one of the researchers said.

The sounds made by Wikie are parrot-like noises as well as shrill whistles through her blowhole. Indeed, Wikie's reproduction of the word "hello" sounds practically human. The orca could also imitate a wolf's howl, an elephant's trumpeting, and the sounds of a creaking door and a "raspberry". The scientific study is well conceived and thoroughly done (please see the abstract at the end of this article), and essentially was done to validate that orcas can learn dialects from both conspecifics and humans.

A killer whale in France has become the first of its kind to mimic human speech.

Imitating vocal sounds in this way is a key component of language, and the ability to do so is rare in mammals besides humans.

Remarkably, field observations of killer whales have documented the existence of group-differentiated vocal dialects that are often referred to as traditions or cultures and are hypothesized to be acquired non-genetically. She can also say "Amy" (her trainer) and "one, two, three".

"That is what makes it even more impressive - even though the morphology [of orcas] is so different, they can still produce a sound that comes close to what another species, in this case us, can produce", said Call.

Dr Irene Pepperberg, an expert in parrot cognition at Harvard University, also described the study as exciting, but said: "A stronger test would have been whether the various sounds produced could be correctly classified by humans without the models present for comparison". She didn't always make flawless copies - as you can hear in the audio above - but the sounds were still recognizable, both by blinded independent assessors and by sound file analysis.

From the water, a high-pitched squeak calls out "hello" but the sound is not coming from a human, it's a whale.

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