Killer whale blows a raspberry, says ‘hello’

The ability to mimic sounds may help whales learn to communicate with each other

What’s that you say? Killer whales can (sort of) imitate human words and other very unwhalelike sounds, research shows. The ability to learn sounds by copying may help orcas communicate in the wild.

Maarten Visser/Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Don’t expect a BFF-level conversation with Wikie just yet. But this 14-year-old killer whale can make a rough attempt at human sounds. You might hear a watery “hello” — or some rude noises.

Scientists recorded Wikie at her home in Marineland in Antibes, France. She repeated another killer whale’s loud “raspberry” sounds. She also copied a trumpeting elephant noise and someone counting to three.

The orca’s efforts were “recognizable” overall as attempted copies, says José Zamorano Abramson. As a comparative psychologist, Abramson studies how animals learn and behave. He now works in Spain at Complutense University of Madrid.

Abramson and his colleagues wanted to know how whales learn sounds. Whales are among the few non-human mammals that copy calls and other sounds made by their peers. So the scientists had Wikie try to copy sounds. Some came from Wikie’s human trainer. Others came from Wikie’s 3-year-old daughter, Moana.

Moana made unusual noises, some like a creaky door or an elephant trumpeting. The trainer used simple words, such as “one, two, three” or “Amy.” Wikie copied all 11 of the new sounds. Some she repeated on the first try. Others took more than a dozen attempts to be somewhat recognizable. The team reported its findings January 31 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Six people compared recordings of Wikie and the original sounds to judge the mimicry. A computer program also rated her skills. Just how close Wikie’s imitations come to the originals depends on whether you focus on the rhythm or other aspects of sound, Abramson says. Wikie did better with some sounds, like blowing raspberries and saying “hello.” Others were not as close, such as “bye-bye.”

Imitating human speech is especially challenging for killer whales. People speak using their voice boxes, or larynxes, in their throats. But whales vocalize by forcing air through passageways in the upper parts of their heads. It’s “like speaking with the nose,” Abramson explains.

In the wild, groups of orcas — called pods — communicate with calls and songs. Each pod uses a slightly different dialect, or pattern of sounds. This research suggests that imitation may help killer whales learn their pod’s unique dialect.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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