Killer whale blows a raspberry, says ‘hello’ | Science News for Students

Killer whale blows a raspberry, says ‘hello’

The ability to mimic sounds may help whales learn to communicate with each other
Mar 26, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
two orcas
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.

Listen to Wikie, a female killer whale trained to try copying sounds on command.


Wikie repeats “hello” back to a researcher.

“Creaking Door”

Wikie makes five attempts to mimic a “creaking door” sound after hearing another killer whale doing it.

“Strong Raspberry”

After another killer whale makes a “raspberry” sound, Wikie tries to mimic it in five audio selections.

“One, Two, Three”

Wikie attempts to copy a researcher saying “one, two, three.”

Source: J.Z. Abramson et al/Proceedings of the Royal Society B 2018

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

dialect     A form of language or pattern of communication that is distinct to a specific place or a social group.

killer whale     A dolphin species (Orcinus orca) whose name means whale killer. These animals belong to the order of marine mammals known as Cetacea (or cetaceans).

mammal     A warm-blooded animal distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for feeding their young, and (typically) the bearing of live young.

orca     A large species of black-and-white porpoise (Orcinus orca). Also known as the killer whale.

peer     (noun) Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features. (verb) To look into something, searching for details.

pod     (in zoology) The name given to a group of toothed whales that travel together, most of them throughout their life, as a group.

psychologist     A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors. 

society     An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.

unique     Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.


Journal: J. Z. Abramson et al. Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca). Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published online January 31, 2018. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2171