Wednesday 21 March 2018

Introducing Wikie, the world's first whale that 'talks'

Wikie the killer whale. Photo: Marineland/PA Wire
Wikie the killer whale. Photo: Marineland/PA Wire

Sara Knapton

Whales are known for their impressive communication skills which allow pods to "talk" to each other through complex clicks and singing, even when they are 100 miles apart.

But a new experiment has shown the mammals are also capable of mimicking human speech, a feat that was previously believed to be limited to primates, birds, elephants and seals.

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 its trainer "Amy".

The 14-year-old orca lives in Marineland at Antibes, France, and is the first ever recorded by scientists saying human words.

The achievement is even more remarkable because whales do not have the same vocal ability as humans, having evolved to communicate underwater. While humans use the larynx to speak, whales produce sounds through their nasal passages using bursts of air.

Recently scientists have claimed whales have different "accents" or "cultures" and the new study suggests those differences are picked up when young through imitation of adults, in a similar way to how children learn to speak through copying.

In the wild, killer whales live in pods and each has its own dialect, which includes calls that are completely unique. Some clicks are even thought to represent names. But it was unclear where that knowledge came from.

Wikie was trained to understand a "copy" signal then invited to repeat 11 completely new sounds given by its trainer.

They included words and noises such as an elephant call, a wolf howl and a creaking door.

She was given a fish or an affectionate pat when it achieved the sound to reinforce the learning. Six judges were then asked to rate whether the vocalisation matched the original word or noise.

The researchers concluded: "Wikie made recognisable copies of the demonstrated sound judged in real time." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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