A killer whale has been taught to speak human words through her blowhole.
Wikie, a 16-year-old female orca living in a French marine theme park, is able to copy words such as ‘hello’, ‘bye bye’ and ‘Amy’, as well as count to three.
Researchers tested multiple sounds in three situations. In one the whale was instructed to produce a sound to copy using gestures.
In another the sound was played through a loudspeaker and in the third a human produced the desired sound.
Each time the killer whale was able to accurately reproduce sounds.
Five sounds where orca noises that Wikie had not heard before. They were described by researchers as ‘breathy raspberry’, ‘strong raspberry’, ‘elephant’, ‘wolf’ and ‘creaking door’.
Three sounds were already familiar to Wikie – described by researchers as ‘song’, ‘blow’ and ‘birdy’.
She was also exposed to six human sounds – ‘hello’, ‘Amy’, ‘ah ha’, ‘one, two’ ‘one, two, three’ and ‘bye bye’.
In each trial, the killer whale was given a ‘do that’ hand signal by a researcher, but offered no food reward.
The recordings were rated by Wikie’s trainer and the researcher, as well as six independent observers.
Speech recognition software was also used to test how well she performed, which showed three words came close to the ‘high-quality match’ achieved by humans copying each other.
The recordings were rated by Wikie’s trainer and the researcher, as well as six independent observers. Pictured is Wikie with her calf
Wikie was able to copy all the sounds she was presented with. She managed to copy all the human produced orca sounds on her first go.
‘We found that the subject made recognisable copies of all familiar and novel conspecific and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly (most during the first 10 trials and three in the first attempt)’, researchers wrote in the paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
‘The subject’s matching accuracy is all the more remarkable as she was able to accomplish it in response to sounds presented in-air and not in-water, the species’ usual medium for acoustic communication.
‘It is conceivable that our data represent a conservative estimate of the killer whale’s capacity for vocal imitation.’
The sounds emerge from her blowhole as parrot-like squawks, shrill whistles or raspberries, but most are easily understandable as words.
She ‘spoke’ while partially immersed in water with her blowhole exposed to the air.