Researchers teach orca to imitate human language, other animal sounds

ANTIBES, France -- In what they call a world first, researchers in Europe say they've taught an orca whale to successfully imitate a variety of sounds, including calls made by other animal species and even spoken human language.

The research focused on Wikie, a 14-year-old killer whale at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. Audio recordings released Wednesday document Wikie's attempts to imitate words and phrases like "hello," "Amy," "one two" and "bye bye" as well as elephant calls and raspberry noises.

Study authors said she successfully imitated the sounds within her first 10 tries during most of the trials. She got it right on the first attempt three times.

While researchers concede that Wikie didn't perfectly imitate all of the sounds, they called her attempts "recognizable" based on both blind observation and acoustic analysis.

"This accuracy level is particularly remarkable given that [Wikie] possessed a very different sound production system compared to humans," they wrote in the scholarly journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Researchers have noted that pods of orca whales in the wild are known to have unique vocal dialects that are specific to their social groups rather than their family history, leading scientists to believe that the dialects were transmitted socially instead of known innately. Orcas in captivity have even been able to learn new vocal calls from their companions (who come from other social groups) and occasionally sounds from other species living nearby, like sea lions.
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