Orcas are magnificent, incredible animals whose intelligence is all too often underestimated.
Their capacity for learning has been demonstrated in a truly phenomenal way, by 14-year-old female captive orca by the name of Wilkie.
Wilkie, who resides at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, has successfully learnt to imitate very distinctive human words as part of an incredible scientific experiment.
This genius giant can copy the human language and say words such as ‘hello’, ‘Amy’, ‘ah ha’, ‘one, two’ and ‘bye bye’. This is the very first time an orca has been trained to do this.
The experiment was conducted by a group of international scientists, hailing from institutions in Germany, UK, Spain and Chile and their findings were then published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
The researchers wanted to find out how orcas acquire their distinct dialects, investigating the potential role of mimicry in the development in orca communication.
Clever Wilkie’s training was in three stages, after her copying abilities were established. She was first taught to mimic three familiar orca noises, as produced by her three-year old daughter Moana.
Orca taught to speak human words through her blowhole. pic.twitter.com/jdwRTfZQLD
— RTÉ (@rte) January 31, 2018
After she got the hang of this, she was then trained to copy five orca sounds which were unfamiliar to her.
Amusingly, this included sounds resembling a creaking door and even a cheeky raspberry being blown.
In the final step, Wilkie listened to a person making three orca sounds and six human sounds.
Look, anyone who’s ever taken an evening language class will surely appreciate Wilkie’s cross-species linguistic efforts.
Wilkie was found to be a remarkably quick learner; able to mimic each noise within the space of 17 trials – she even managed to grasp each of the human-produced orca sounds and two of the human noises on her very first try.
Wilkie’s understanding was initially judged by her two trainers and this success was then confirmed by six independent adjudicators who compared recordings of Wilkie’s attempts to the original noises.
According to The Guardian, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews, Josep Call, said:
We wanted to see how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds,
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.
Professor Call added:
You cannot pick a word that is very complicated because then I think you are asking too much – we wanted things that were short but were also distinctive,
Although there is no evidence to suggest Wilkie understood the words she was ‘saying’, these findings are still significant.
The writers of the research paper explained:
The results reported here show killer whales have evolved the ability to control sound production and qualify as open-ended vocal learners.
Moreover, given the highly derived state of the sound-producing apparatus uniquely evolved by cetaceans, the imitative capacities found in this study also underscore the fine-tuned ability of this species to flexibly produce accurate matches of heterospecific in-air sounds.
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Orcas such as Wilkie, who are kept in captivity, have sparked debate over the years; with many people being angered by such intelligent animals being kept as attractions at parks such as Seaworld.
These confined, unnatural conditions have been shown to have negative effects on orcas’ health and wellbeing; putting them at risk of diseases and lowered life expectancy.
In some circumstances, whales have been driven to violence after becoming distressed and frustrated by their captivity.
Hi the ORCA who is saying HELLO & GOODBYE..more inclined to think he is saying 'Set me Free!" Orcas are torn from their family groups or artificially inseminated in captivity against their will. They die young & are forced to live in a goldfish bowl. #orca #Killerwhale #whaletalk pic.twitter.com/Hl1ZPdhdV5
— Anneka Svenska (@AnnekaSvenska) January 31, 2018
In Wilkie’s case, going forward, researchers will need to study wild orcas to further test the hypothesis how these amazing animals do indeed learn sound through vocal imitation.