Whale learns to speak words. blog.seattlepi/candacewhiting

This killer whale imitates human words – hear her speak here

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Whale learns to speak words. blog.seattlepi/candacewhitingHot from the presses is the news that Wikie, a captive orca in Marineland Aquarium, Antibes, France, has learned to mimic human language.  The scientific study is well conceived and thoroughly done (please see the abstract at the end of this article), and essentially was done to validate that orcas can learn dialects from both conspecifics and humans.
But the benefit to the whales may lie in having something novel to occupy their time.

As you listen to the full sequence of sounds in the link above you’re likely to experience wonder, curiosity, and amusement – it’s a challenge to form words through a blowhole after all and the less than successful attempts sound like noises that could have been made by eight year old kids at a sleepover.
But just challenging the whale at least gives her something to do besides tricks.
Ask any former cetacean trainer why they walked away from their dream jobs, and somewhere in the list of reasons will be the frustration of trying to do right by the animals in their care. The shackles imposed by training regimes designed to get captive whales and dolphins to perform precise tricks and maneuvers curtail innovation, and innovation is exactly what is needed to keep highly intelligent animals mentally stimulated.
The whales are told what to do, and are rewarded when they do it correctly. They also have structured play time and enrichment activities during the day, but what about at night? Cetaceans don’t sleep for long stretches so how do they entertain themselves in the sterile tank environments?
In the early 80’s with the help of  Steve Leatherwood I submitted two ideas to SeaWorld designed to improve the lives of the captive cetaceans. One idea was to cover the tank walls with the coating that submarines used to absorb sound, and the second was to introduce a ‘busy box’ that could be placed where the whales could push paddles and ‘request’ an activity of their choice. SeaWorld’s polite reply thanked me for the suggestions and basically indicated that it would go in their future file (obviously it meant their circular file).
Little changed over the decades, until Blackfish and Voice of the Orcas emerged and forced the captive industry to change by increasing public awareness of the animals’ plight. Since then, many changes have been made by theme parks in the care of their animals and heartening progress has been developed towards conservation, rescue and rehabilitation…but still, there’s not much for the whales to do most of the time.
While two-way conversations with cetaceans may happen in the future, it won’t be by asking them to speak human language since our languages vary, and accents, intonations, syntax etc are difficult to process, let alone mimic. Cetacean brains are different, the context for communication varies, and in in the water medium where they evolved sound behaves differently.
That said, there is no reason why whales and dolphins can’t learn to understand words and context – for instance dogs are good at understanding words, and attach meaning to what they hear. A riding instructor I knew had to spell out what she wanted the riders to do because the lesson horses understood the basic commands (walk, trot, canter) and would go into the gaits before the students could cue them.
Anything done with kindness to help animals in captivity is worthwhile, at least until the era of keeping them captive has passed into history. Hopefully this study will give theme parks new ideas to make their charges lives meaningful in the interim.
The study:


Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca)

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fuelled the evolution of human culture. 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.

Remarkably, field observations of killer whales have documented the existence of group-differentiated vocal dialects that are often referred to as traditions or cultures and are hypothesized to be acquired non-genetically. Here we use a do-as-I-do paradigm to study the abilities of a killer whale to imitate novel sounds uttered by conspecific (vocal imitative learning) and human models (vocal mimicry).
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).
Our results lend support to the hypothesis that the vocal variants observed in natural populations of this species can be socially learned by imitation. The capacity for vocal imitation shown in this study may scaffold the natural vocal traditions of killer whales in the wild.

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