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A group of orca whales in the wild.

A 14-year-old captive orca whale named Wikie flaunted the highly intelligent capabilities of her species in a recent study that sought to learn more about how wild whales learn sounds within their pods.  

In a series of experiments, Wikie was able to recite human words like “hello,” “one,” “two” and “bye bye” as well as other unfamiliar whale sounds.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is the first to demonstrate that orcas can mimic human words.

Wikie, who lives in Marineland Aquarium in France with her 3-year-old calf named Moana, had previously been trained to copy actions performed by a fellow orca when prompted by a human gesture. Similar “do-as-I-do” experiments have been used in tests with primates, birds, and dogs.

But the latest work included three phases. First, the researchers and whale trainers revisited the copy commands that were learned four years prior to reinforce the training. Then, Wikie was instructed to copy on command three familiar whale sounds made by her calf.

The final phase was the most complex. Wikie was exposed to 11 novel sounds, some of which were unfamiliar whale sounds while others were human utterances like “Amy,” an “ah ah” laughing sound and “bye bye” – among others. The researchers ensured the sounds were indeed unfamiliar to Wikie by recording 28 hours of in-air spontaneous sounds produced by the Wikie and her calf during their free time and identifying any vocalized sounds that may be similar to the study sample sounds.

The third phase was conducted in two different ways. First Wikie listened to three familiar sounds and five unknown sounds uttered by another live whale or through a speaker. The trainers then signaled for her to copy the sounds. A similar process was done for the second round, but with all human sounds.

The findings showed that Wikie excelled most with “hello” but struggled slightly with the words like “one” and “two.” Overall, the imitations were not as clear as one would expect from a parrot, but they were recognizable. Four of the six novel sounds were found to be high-quality matches, according to the study. The analysis also showed that Wikie’s copies of novel whale and human sounds were in most cases even more accurate that copies of familiar sounds – especially with “hello,” “Amy,” and “ah ah.”

For most of the sounds, Wikie was able to successfully imitate in less than 10 trials. Some sounds took up to 17 trials.

In addition to her trainers, Wikie’s success was also judged by six independent adjudicators who compared recordings of her copies to the original sound, without knowing which was which.

“The results reported here show that killer whales have evolved the ability to control sound production and qualify as open-ended vocal learners,” wrote the researchers.

The truly impressive aspect of the results, according to the researchers, is that the morphology of orcas is vastly different than humans, yet they can still produce sounds that mimic our language.

The researchers point out that there was no context training involved in the copy tests, so Wikie does not understand what the words mean. Additionally, Wikie mimicked the sounds with her head above water, so the next step would be to perform a similar test with wild orcas underwater.

Recordings of the imitations can be found here.

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