A new study suggests orcas are capable of mimicking human speech ― an ability shared only by a few other animals, including parrots and elephants.
The findings, which were published Tuesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, were based on a series of voice imitation trials researchers conducted with a 14-year-old captive orca named Wilkie.
Wilkie made “recognized copies of all familiar and novel” sounds made by other orcas, also known as killer whales, and humans. The report says she also mimicked the sounds relatively quickly ― most within the first 10 trials and three on the first attempt.
“We wanted to see how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds,” said Josep Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews and a co-author of the study, told The Guardian.
Wilkie was able to imitate the words “hello” and “Amy,” as well as the sound of a human laugh (“ah ah”), with even greater accuracy than some of the familiar sounds uttered by other orcas.
“We thought what would be really convincing is to present them with something that is not in their repertoire ― and in this case ‘hello’ [is] not what a killer whale would say,” Call said.
The report suggests that different dialects found within various orca populations can be socially learned by imitation. Still, further research is needed to determine how wild orcas practice vocal imitation because these trials were conducted above water with a captive whale.
Wilkie may be able to imitate human speech relatively quickly, but there’s no evidence that she understands what she’s “saying” ― similar to parrots, beluga whales and seals.
The discovery may prove exciting for many marine enthusiasts, but some animal activists were quick to point out problems associated with keeping whales in captivity. Studies show that orcas in captivity suffer from higher stress levels and have shorter life expectancies than their wild counterparts.
Wilkie is held at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, which has been accused of mistreating whales and other animals in recent years.