Researchers at the University of Madrid have released some remarkable findings from their studies about speech abilities outside of the human species. The team, led by Jose’ Abramson has demonstrated that Orca Killer Whales are capable of reproducing human words.
In the study, a killer whale was taught to vocalize several English words including hello, bye bye, one, two and Amy.
Orcas are known for their mimicking abilities in the wild, where they copy the sounds made by sea lions, dolphins and other whales.
Mimicry of human speech has been displayed by several non human species such as certain bird species, elephants, dolphins and even a distant relative of the orca, the beluga whale.
What this research team wanted to further explore was how flexible that the killer whales are in their sound mimicking and to what extent the characteristics were part of a broader language acquiring ability.
The subject of this study was “Wikie,” a 14 year old female orca that was housed in an aquarium in France. The research team established a learning protocol with Wikie, whereby she would understand a basic “copy” command as a signal for her to reproduce what followed.
She was taught to copy sounds made by her own calf.
Wikie was then taught unfamiliar sounds such as blowing a raspberry and a creaking door sound. After the researchers were satisfied with Wikie’s performance, they moved on to teaching her the human vocabulary.
While it is clear that the killer whale did not understand what she was saying, she was able to repeat the words with an unmistakable familiarity, improving her reproductions in a very short number of trials.
The copying that takes place in this form of sound production requires the coordination of several physical and cognitive processes. Humans have a highly evolved speech generating physiology tied to areas of the brain that are activated simultaneously to generate speech sounds in a coherent and meaningful sequence. Through a process known as vocal imitation, humans acquire the speech sounds and their understandings by copying a more highly skilled speaker.
Wikie’s copying of the sounds followed a training initiated protocol established by the researchers. This has led the team to speculate whether orcas are capable of learning their sounds through these same vocal imitation processes. The findings would be huge in furthering the understanding of language production outside of our species.
The researchers will further explore these findings by performing tests on killer whales in the wild.