You've probably heard a parrot perform vocal mimicry of a human sound, but did you ever think you'd hear a killer whale perform the same exercise? The recording, one of several captured by scientists from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, is part of a recently published study on the vocal imitation and language development capacities of killer whales.
"We wanted to study vocal imitation because it’s a hallmark of human spoken language, which is in turn important for human cultural evolution," study leader Dr. José Zamorano-Abramson told The New York Times. "We are interested in the possibility that other species also have cultural processes."
Killer whales, which possess the second-heaviest brains of marine mammals after sperm whales, have long been studied for their advanced communication skills and complex social bonds. It's long been theorized that unique dialects shared by pods are learned and are not inherited genetically. In fact, outside of humans, killer whales are the only other known creatures that have distinct evolved cultures dating back thousands of years.
While killer whales have been recorded learning and mimicking the sounds of neighboring bottlenose dolphins, the researchers were curious to see if these same skills could be applied to both human and other environmental noises.
To that end, the team led by Abramson visited a 14-year-old killer whale named Wikie at in Marineland in Antibes, France. They first trained Wikie's calf, a 3-year-old daughter named Moana, to mimic five sounds outside the natural ones used by her mother. These included a creaking door, the trumpeting noise of an elephant, and a raspberry. They then recorded how well Wikie learned the new noises made by her daughter. You can hear some of the results below.
First, let's hear the sound imitations, starting with Wikie's attempt at a creaking door:
A strong raspberry:
Next, the researchers fed Wikie some human vocalizations.
Here she is saying "hello":
And counting "1, 2, 3":
According to the study, Wikie was able to copy all 11 the sounds she received. Her rate of learning was extraordinary, with some vocalizations recognizable on the first try and others taking only a dozen repeats to master. The mimicry is even more impressive when you consider that whales lack a larynx and must vocalize by forcing air between balloon-like sacs in their heads.
"This is the first study to show that killer whales can make recognizable copies of human sounds," Abramson told the Times.