Killer whale able to mimic human speech

The killer whale was able to mimic the duration and pitch of human speech coming close on three words to a ‘high-quality match’. File

The animal's repertoire includes the name "Amy" and "one, two, three".

Killer whales have also been recorded mimicking dolphin and sea lion sounds.

"You can not pick a word that is very complicated because then I think you are asking too much - we wanted things that were short but were also distinctive", Josep Call, a professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St. Andrews, told The Guardian. "Humans obviously are good at it but, interestingly, the mammals that can do best are marine mammals". She successfully reproduced some sounds - such as the phrases "hello" and "one, two, three" - on her first attempt. The orcas have unique vocal dialects, and they love to copy other orcas.

"Wikie succeeded in copying all sounds regardless of whether they were produced by a model of the same species, either live or through a speaker, or by a human model", Complutense University of Madrid (link in Spanish) said in a statement. Killer whales have previously been shown to mimic dolphin sounds.

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, yet in other animals it is strikingly rare.

And while such a feat - augmented by teaching the same whale to repeat "one, two" and other unusual sounds - might sound like a circus trick, it has a serious objective behind it.

A 16-year-old female orca imitates human speech.

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Based on the success of the killer whale experiment, the research team is claiming that genuine conversations with Wikie might one day become possible.

"Yes, it's conceivable ... if you have labels, descriptions of what things are", he said.

"You have to be careful about imposing our human concepts on animals".

He added: "We will gain more if we try to understand the natural way each species communicates in its own environment than if we try to teach a human language". She was then exposed to five different orca sounds that were unfamiliar to her. Sounds made under the water may be quite different.

When housed with bottlenose dolphins for a period of three years, three orcas' vocalizations changed to more closely match those of the dolphins, including dolphin vocalizations such as click trains and whistles.

Whales are known for their impressive communications skills which allow pods to "talk" to each other through complex clicks and singing, even when they are 100 miles apart.

A 2012 study in the journal Current Biology reported a male Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) that could convincingly imitate some Korean words.

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