Scientists have taught a killer whale to imitate human speech, in a new study released on January 31.
A high-pitched and eerie voice uttering the name "Amy" is quite clear in the audio released by the study's researchers. Killer whales have previously been shown to mimic dolphin sounds.
Killer whales have also been recorded mimicking dolphin and sea lion sounds.
"The evidence that killer whales can show vocal learning provides us with a missing piece of understanding about their lives in the wild", Rendell wrote. The scientists were also quick to pour water on any suggestions that their research indicated Wikie was able to comprehend the sounds she was making as communication. Comparative evidence has revealed that although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is mostly uniquely human among primates, a few distantly related taxa of birds and mammals have also independently evolved this capacity.
This is the first time an orca has been trained to learn and distinctly repeat human sounds.
Wikie is undergoing training at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France.
Scientists say the discovery helps to shed light on how different pods of wild killer whales have ended up with distinct dialects, adding weight to the idea that they are the result of imitation between orcas.
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In addition to human sounds, Wikie was exposed to noises made by another killer whale to see if she was capable of imitating them.
Throughout the study, Wikie's success was first judged by her two trainers and then confirmed from recordings by six independent adjudicators who compared them to the original sound, without knowing which was which.
He said: "It's conceivable. if you have labels, descriptions of what things are". She didn't always make flawless copies - as you can hear in the audio above - but the sounds were still recognizable, both by blinded independent assessors and by sound file analysis.
The team tested a 14-year-old female orca called Wilkie with multiple sounds in different scenarios, including using loudspeakers.
Killer whales are known to live in groups with unique vocal "dialects".
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". A similar process was done for the second round, but with all human sounds.