Hello! Whales Can Imitate Human Speech

SCIENCE

Killer whales able to copy words such as ‘hello’ and ‘bye bye’ as well as sounds from other orcas. (Guardian)

What other animal sounds can whales imitate?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

A captive orca was able to imitate basic human speech (hello, bye-bye) on the first attempt.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

 

  • How was the experiment conducted?
    • The experiment was carried out in four parts. All the sounds in the study were requested and performed when Wikie’s head was above water with her blowhole exposed.
      • First, Wikie was trained with a “copy” command.
      • Second, Wikie was trained to copy three orca vocalizations made by her own calf, Moana. These were familiar sounds coming from a familiar source.
      • Third, Wikie was trained to copy five orca sounds she had never heard before, including those sounding like a creaking door and blowing a raspberry. These were new sounds, but familiar vocalizations (pitches and patterns). (Wikie was really good at blowing a raspberry, by the way.)
      • Finally, Wikie was trained to copy six unfamiliar human sounds, including “hello,” “bye-bye,” “one-two” and “Amy.” These were entirely unfamiliar (novel) sounds. Click the Guardian audio to judge how well Wikie imitated these sounds.

 

 

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

Guardian: Orcas can imitate human speech, research reveals

Nat Geo: Whale Goes Native in the Dolphin Pool study guide

Nat Geo: ‘Brain Atlas’ Charts How We Navigate Language study guide

Nat Geo: Activate the Bat Signal! Bats Crowdsource Their Dialects study guide

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