An orca has learned how to emulate human speech for the first time. Through an experiment conducted by researchers at Complutense University of Madrid, Wilkie the Whale has acquired a limited vocabulary which includes the words “hello,” “bye bye,” the first three nonzero positive numbers, and “Amy,” the name of Wilkie’s trainer. “We were not expecting a perfect match, like a parrot,” researcher Jose Abramson told Phys.org. Nonetheless, the imperfect imitations are striking in their similarity to human vocalization, particularly when one considers that orca vocal physiology is completely different from that of humans.
Wilkie the Whale was a suitable subject for mimicry as she had already learned the command “copy” during her training to perform tricks for visitors to her home, the Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. At first, she was instructed to copy new sounds from other orcas of various family groups with different dialects. Next, the team moved onto human sounds, not knowing what to expect. “When we tried ‘hello’ and she did the sound… some emotional responses came from the trainers,” Abramson told AFP. “For us, it was very difficult not to say anything.”
Recordings of the experiment can be found here. Wilkie managed to project a very convincing “hello,” albeit on the deeper side. While she struggled with “one-two-three,” her “Amy” was nearly flawless. While Wilkie can reproduce human sounds, she does not know what they mean as the experiment was designed to remove meaning and context from each word. However, the experiment demonstrates the intelligence of orcas, who use imitation to learn from their peers. Trial and error “can be every expensive,” said Abramson, “you can die just trying poisonous fish, for example, for killer whales. But if you learn from the experience of the others it’s more safe.” In addition to orcas, parrots, beluga whales, dolphins, seals, and Asian elephants have demonstrated an ability to mimic human speech.