A 14-year-old killer whale named Wiki is the first orca in the world to say human words. Wikie, who lives in Marineland at Antibes, France, has been recorded by scientists saying “hello”, “bye bye”, ” and the name of its trainer, Amy, The Telegraph reports. Wikie can also count to three.
Whales have long been known for their uncanny communication skills, which involve singing and making clicking sounds in the wild to contact other whales. But Wikie’s achievement marks a milestone for the species, as previously only primates, dolphins, elephants, seals and birds were thought to be capable of mimicking human speech.
The research suggests that orcas can learn to imitate human words, as parrots have been known to do. José Abramson of the Complutense University of Madrid highlighted the finding’s significance: “Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fuelled the evolution of human culture”, he said. “We found that the subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly, most during the first 10 trials and three in 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.”
Wikie learnt to understand a signal meaning “imitate”, then was asked to repeat different sounds, including words and noises, to her trainer. Each time she successfully imitated a word or sound, she was rewarded with a fish and praise from the trainer. Her words, which were analysed in waveform, matched human words when compared.
“Wikie made recognizable copies of the demonstrated sound judged in real time by two observers, Wikie’s trainer and one experimenter, later confirmed by both after listening to the recordings”, the study concluded. “The subject’s matching accuracy is all the more remarkable as she was able to accomplish it in response to sounds presented in-air and not in-water, the species’ usual medium for acoustic communication. It is conceivable that our data represent a conservative estimate of the killer whale’s capacity for vocal imitation.”