Scientists say they have recorded a killer whale named Wikie repeating the words "hello" and "bye bye", counting up to three, and even saying the name of her trainer 'Amy'.
Wikie, a 14-year-old female killer whale housed at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, was tested by researchers including José Z. Abramson to get her to speak.
High-pitched, eerie and yet distinct, the sound of a voice calling the name "Amy" is unmistakable.
The killer whale that we studied in captivity was capable of learning vocalisations of other killer whales and also human vocalisations by imitating them, therefore this result suggests this is also a plausible explanation for how killer whales in the wild learn the vocalisations of other killer whales and how they develop their dialects.
Her vocabulary only includes a handful of words, but with them, an orca at a French marine facility is proving that cetaceans can be taught how to pronounce specific sounds with their blowholes. Some birds can mimic human speech, notably parrots, but also some members of the crow family.
"They have even been known to imitate bottlenose dolphins and sea lions", said Dr Abramson. Call said that the impressive part about the killer whales is that although their morphology is very different from other species like humans, they can still manage to copy sounds and speeches of humans.
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"You can not 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", said Call.
Though the recordings are not flawless, they are recognizable, including when she says, "Amy", the name of her trainer.
Imitating vocal sounds in this way is a key component of language, and the ability to do so is rare in mammals besides humans.
Wild orcas are known to live in groups and comm- unicate in dialects that are often unique to their pod. Previous sessions with Wikie had already trained her to respond to a "do this" command for a fish reward, the study authors reported.
Interestingly, DTW analysis showed that in some cases, Wikie's mimicry of unfamiliar sounds was better than her mimicry of familiar ones, the scientists noted.
The charity's director Elisa Allen told Sky News: "How deeply ironic that this research, which speaks volumes of the emotional intelligence of orcas, was conducted in a marine park's cement cell, where they're imprisoned and denied everything that's natural and important to them in order to make money from tourists". The researchers also had blindfolded judges listen to audio samples - original and orca-produced - and decide whether the recordings sounded similar.