Intelligent Orca Whale Can Say Human Words

Story at-a-glance -

  • Wikie, a 14-year-old female orca living in a French aquarium, has learned how to “talk,” imitating human words such as “hello,” “bye bye,” “one two three” and “Amy”
  • She’s the first whale known to engage in such vocal imitation, which is said to be a hallmark of human spoken language, an advanced cognitive skill
  • The trainers believe that the next step may be having simple conversations with Wikie, such as teaching her to bring a certain object or follow other basic instructions
  • Orcas are among the most intelligent animals, learning local and complex languages that are retained for many generations and have distinct patterns, or dialects, that are unique to pods living in different regions

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Wikie, a 14-year-old female orca living in a French aquarium, has learned how to “talk.” She’s uttered words including “hello,” “bye bye,” “one two three” and “Amy.” She’s the first whale known to engage in such vocal imitation, which is said to be a hallmark of human spoken language, an advanced cognitive skill.

What makes Wikie’s imitations all the more remarkable is the fact that she can produce the human-like sounds using a very different set of “pipes,” biologically speaking, and in a way that’s unnatural for her — only partially immersed in water with her blowhole exposed, whereas whales typically make sounds while underwater.

Trainers working with Wikie used a form of training known as “Do As I Do,” or DAID, which uses social learning. The method involves first teaching animals to perform a set of behaviors displayed by a human when the command “Do it!” is said. The command can then be used to direct the animal to perform novel behaviors learned by observation, like imitating sounds.

The First ‘Talking’ Whale?

Wikie is the first whale to learn to imitate human speech, but she’s far from the first whale to “talk.” Orcas among the most intelligent animals, learning local and complex languages that are retained for many generations. Orcas communicate and navigate their underwater environment using various clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. The latter have distinct patterns, or dialects, that are unique to pods living in different regions.

“Remarkably, field observations of killer whales [orcas] have documented the existence of group-differentiated vocal dialects that are often referred to as traditions or cultures and are hypothesized to be acquired non-genetically [i.e., learned as opposed to innate],” researchers wrote in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.1

Their work with Wikie supports this, as she was able to successfully imitate all the familiar and novel human sounds and words they tested her on, “and did so relatively quickly,” they noted.

In fact, Wikie typically was able to mimic human words and sounds within the first 10 trials and three times did so on the first attempt. “Our results lend support to the hypothesis that the vocal variants observed in natural populations of this species can be socially learned by imitation. The capacity for vocal imitation shown in this study may scaffold the natural vocal traditions of killer whales in the wild,” according to the researchers.2

They believe that the next step may be having simple conversations with Wikie, such as teaching her to bring a certain object or follow other basic instructions.

Orcas Can Also Speak ‘Dolphin’

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that an orca can learn to imitate human words, considering they can also learn to communicate with dolphins. To be clear, orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family, but they don’t typically communicate with other members, such as bottlenose dolphins. Yet, when orcas are socialized with bottlenose dolphins, something extraordinary happens: their usual clicks, whistles and pulsed calls shift to more closely mimic those of the dolphins.

In a study of three orcas with a history of exposure to bottlenose dolphins, one of the orcas spontaneously learned to produce artificial chirps taught to dolphins while also producing whistles similar to one produced by one of the dolphins.3 The finding “suggests substantial vocal plasticity and motivation for vocal conformity with social associates,” the study revealed, as all three of the whales housed with dolphins demonstrated shifts in their call types, specifically more clicks and whistles and fewer pulsed calls.

Is Orca Communication Beyond the Realm of Humans?

Perhaps an even more intriguing prospect than teaching orcas to speak “human” would be to figure out what they’re already saying. It’s thought that orcas use signature calls as names to recognize one another and can hear each other from up to about 30 miles away.

Some have questioned whether orcas understand syntax, or the specific arrangement of words that makes a sentence into a language, but perhaps this, too, is beside the point. It could be, instead, that comprehending orca language is beyond the realm of humans. As Carl Safina, author of "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel," noted in National Geographic:4

Perhaps as humans gained our exceptional skills at syntactical language and its immense powers, we lost the ability to comprehend a different way of approaching and using vocal information. Perhaps each species has its own languages and dialects and we don’t understand because they work differently from ours and from each others’ and it’s much more complex than it seems.

But what seems to be the case is that animals with complex vocal repertoires manage to get a lot of information across without using syntax much, if at all. The same can be said of the interaction between a human and a dog, for instance.

I think that when there is not a species bridge to cross, when the creatures are among themselves with their own families and cultures and appropriate habitats and familiar territories, the amount that gets across is quite rich. How it gets across, we still don’t know.”

For the record, while Wikie may be the first orca to imitate human words, she’s not the first animal to do so. Other species, including some parrots, members of the crow family, elephants, orangutans and beluga whales have also been known to do so.5 Let’s hope our identification of the depth and breadth of these amazing animals’ cognitive abilities translates into the environmental restoration and legislative protection they deserve.

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