Orcas Can Say 'Hello', 'Bye-Bye' and 'One-Two-Three'

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

Wikie, a killer whale at a marine park in Antibes mimicked human speech.

Researchers have lately found that orcas got different accents and those accents are picked up by the killer whales while they imitate the adults when they are young, just like children learn how to speak by mimicking and copying. She had previously been trained to copy actions performed by another orca when given a human gesture.

Her vocabulary only includes a handful of words, but with them, an orca at a French marine facility is proving that cetaceans can be taught how to pronounce specific sounds with their blowholes.

Wikie was taught several human words and phrases, including "ah-ah", "hello", "bye-bye", "Amy" and "one, two, three".

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Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fuelled the evolution of human culture.

Wikie also copied the trainer in saying words like hello and goodbye.

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.

The scientist who led the study said it was conceivable that basic "conversations" with her may one day be possible.

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Killer whales are known to live in groups with unique vocal "dialects". "It has been done before with a famous grey parrot and dolphins using American sign language; sentences like "bring me this object" or "put this object above or below the other". However, because the experiments were conducted above water, the results don't indicate how accurately wild orcas may reproduce unfamiliar sounds that they hear underwater, and further investigation will be required to gauge the role that mimicry plays in orcas' social communication, the scientists wrote in the study.

Wikie is a wild killer whale, or orca, which is part of the oceanic dolphins' family.

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.

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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"That is what makes it even more impressive - even though the morphology [of orcas] is so different, they can still produce a sound that comes close to what another species, in this case us, can produce", said Call.

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