A killer whale gives a raspberry and says ‘hello’

Mimicry of human sounds supports the idea that imitation matters in the cetaceans’ own dialects

two killer whales

SAY WHAT?  Killer whales can (sort of) imitate human words and other very unwhalelike sounds, says a tough test of mimicry.

Maarten Visser/Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ready for sketch comedy she’s not. But a 14-year-old killer whale named Wikie has shown promise in mimicking strange sounds, such as a human “hello” — plus some rude noises.

Scientists recorded Wikie at her home in Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, imitating another killer whale’s loud “raspberry” sounds, as well as a trumpeting elephant and humans saying such words as “one, two, three.”

The orca’s efforts were overall “recognizable” as attempted copies, comparative psychologist José Zamorano Abramson of Complutense University of Madrid and colleagues report January 31 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Just how close Wikie’s imitations come to the originals depends on whether you’re emphasizing the rhythm or other aspects of sound, Abramson says.

Six people judged Wikie’s mimicry ability, and a computer program also rated her skills. She did better at some sounds, like blowing raspberries and saying “hello-hello,” than others, including saying “bye-bye.”

Imitating human speech is especially challenging for killer whales. Instead of vocalizing by passing air through their throats, they sound off by forcing air through passageways in the upper parts of their heads. It’s “like speaking with the nose,” Abramson says.

The research supports the idea that imitation plays a role in how killer whales develop their elaborate dialects of bleating pulses. Cetaceans are rare among mammals in that, like humans, they learn how to make the sounds their species uses to communicate.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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