Last updated February 8, 2018 at 9:57 am
Listen as killer whale Wikie learns how to say, ‘hello’, ‘bye bye’, and something rude.
Wikie is a 14-year old Orca, or killer whale, held in captivity in a French aquarium, and she has learned to blow a great raspberry. Listen to this without giggling, I dare you.
Even more remarkably, Wikie was able to copy human sounds that she had never heard before or received any training on, surprisingly quickly, after hearing it only a few times.
Here is Wikie learning to mimic “Hello”:
Learning to speak through imitating sounds is one of the key ways humans learn to communicate. Birds famously can learn complex songs from one another, but among mammals this ability to learn through imitation is strikingly rare.
Whales and dolphins are one of the few mammal groups that are known to be capable of vocal learning. Orca are known to have different ‘vocal dialects’ in the wild, which they learn from each other through their social groups. Orca in captivity have been observed to learn to copy calls from seals or dolphins. Jose Abramson and colleagues wanted to investigate Orca mimicry, and so designed a set of experiments with Wikie, training her to copy sounds from other Orca or from a human trainer.
So how do you tell what a whale is saying?
Does this sound like a convincing bye bye?
The study didn’t just rely on human judgement to tell whether the sounds were similar. Our senses can be notoriously untrustworthy, as our brains seek to make patterns. Pareidolia is what happens when your brain interprets random noise as something familiar, like hearing someone speaking a phrase as a ‘hidden message’ on a record played backwards.
In this study acoustic analysis was used to measure the similarity of the orca vocalisations. Dynamic Time Warping, an algorithm for automated recognition of human speech, was able to quantify the level of similarity between sounds. This algorithm is widely used in artificial intelligence and machine learning applications.
While the frequencies between human and orca don’t exactly match, the way they change – the overall pattern, does.
“Although the subject did not make perfect copies of all novel conspecific and human sounds, they were recognizable copies as assessed by both external independent blind observers and the acoustic analysis” write the authors.
Wikie was able to copy of all the sounds tested, relatively quickly.
How an Orca ‘speaks’
The way a human speaks uses a completely different set of equipment than in whales or dolphins. People produce sound in the larynx (voice box), which is filtered through the nose and mouth. In dolphins and whales, sound is produced from vibrating ‘phonic lips’ in their nasal passages.
In whales, the sound producing organs are compressed while diving due to pressure changes, which researchers suggest favours the development of vocal learning. Whales and dolphins need to have voluntary control of sound production, so they can reliably generate similar sounds at different depths.
This research was carried out with just one captive orca, and more research is needed to see if it translates to wild pods, where orca are known to have highly sophisticated social structures.