For the research, the Call and his team looked at a female killer whale named Wikie at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. The study joins a growing body of research illustrating the deep importance of social learning for killer whales.
"Killer whales use their blowhole to make noises, nearly like speaking out of your nose, so we were not expecting it to be ideal", said Dr Jose Abramson, a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid, who led the study. "We are interested in the possibility that other species also have cultural processes". For decades, scientists have suspected that orcas acquire these dialects through social learning rather than genetic inheritance.
This is key to their ability to mimic human speech.
"One of the main things that fired the evolution of human intelligence is the ability to have social learning, to imitate, and to have culture", Abramson told AFP.
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Though the recordings are not flawless, they are recognizable, including when she says, "Amy", the name of her trainer.
Killer whales, or orcas, are the largest of the dolphins and one of the world's most powerful predators. A French ban on breeding whales and dolphins in captivity has faced legal challenges.
The scientists throughout their experiment found that Wikie was quick in copying sounds The matching were backed up through an analysis of various acoustic features from the recordings of Wikie's sounds.
Abramson, who led the research, warned about "imposing" human concepts on animals.
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Although the orca Wikie's ability to mimic human speech is perhaps the most notable takeaway from this study, she has also been observed twittering like a bird, squawking like a parrot, and even blowing raspberries - which Forbes reports she is particularly fond of. Wikie attempted some breathy raspberries. First, the researchers and whale trainers revisited the copy commands that were learned four years prior to reinforce the training. Then they used an algorithm to evaluate her vocalizations, based on features like tonality, rhythm and melody contour.
As Wikie started mimicking her calf's voice, she was exposd to five ocra sounds along with six human sounds including "hello", "Amy", "ah ha", "one, two" and "bye bye".
"We found that the subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel conspecific and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly (most during the first 10 trials and three in the first attempt)", the experts revealed in their paper.
"Wikie succeeded in copying all sounds regardless of whether they were produced by a model of the same species, either live or through a speaker, or by a human model", Complutense University of Madrid (link in Spanish) said in a statement.
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Rendell said it is "somewhat ironic" that this study, performed on captive animals, adds to a growing case against keeping orcas captive. The orcas have unique vocal dialects, and they love to copy other orcas.