'Talking' killer whale Wikie should be freed from captivity, charities say

Posted February 01, 2018

Scientists have taught a killer whale to imitate human speech, in a new study released on January 31.

They studied Wikie at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France.

Making sounds outside her natural medium she found some of the unfamiliar whale noises more hard than human words, said Dr Abramson. Previous sessions with Wikie had already trained her to respond to a "do this" command for a fish reward, the study authors reported.

The study also showed the animal was able to copy unfamiliar sounds produced by other orcas.

Killer whales have been noted to express themselves in dialects: calls and accents specific to each pod.

In the study, these whales learned to mimic words like "hello", "bye bye", and "one, two".

Audio recordings of the killer whale's speech include clips of the creature imitating the simple phrases as well as copying certain sounds outside of human language, like a creaking door and someone blowing a raspberry.

They wrote that the whale they were training and prompting, a 14-year-old female named Wikie, "made recognizable copies" of the sounds she heard from humans and from a young peer, her 3-year-old calf, Moana - "and did so relatively quickly".

During the research study, Wikie was trained to become familiar with unknown sounds.

"We wanted to see how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds", Josep Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews and a co-author of the study, told The Guardian.

A killer whale living in captivity has surprised scientists by allegedly learning to "speak" human words through its blowhole. When we tried "hello" and she did the sound... some emotional responses came from the trainers. Belugas and bottlenose dolphins have been observed doing it, as well as elephants. Using this command, an global team of researchers have now taught Wikie to blow raspberries, mimic a creaky door, say hello and bye bye, and repeat numbers, all with her head above water.

"I think here we have the first evidence that killer whales may be learning sounds by vocal imitation, and this is something that could be the basis of the dialects we observe in the wild - it is plausible", said Call, noting that to further test the idea, trials would have to be carried out with wild orcas. This could add another layer of difficulty, though it also raises questions as to whether she would learn and repeat sounds differently underwater.

However, the findings published in theProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences do not imply that the killer whales were also capable of discerning the meaning of the sounds they mimicked.