PAUL SIEVEKING talks to the an­i­mals – in this case, a 14-year-old cap­tive orca that has re­port­edly learned to mimic hu­man speech

Fortean Times - - Strange Days -

An orca (killer whale) that can mimic words has been an­nounced as the first of its kind to copy hu­man speech. The 14-year-old fe­male named Wikie, at Marineland Aquar­ium in An­tibes, France, was trained to un­der­stand a ‘copy’ sig­nal and then in­vited to re­peat 11 new sounds, re­warded with a fish or an af­fec­tion­ate pat. She ‘speaks’ words through her blow­hole and can be heard in record­ings mim­ick­ing words such as “Hello”, “Bye-bye” and “Amy” (her trainer’s name), and count­ing “One, two, three” us­ing squawks and shrill whistles and rasp­ber­ries. She has also been trained to mimic noises such as a creak­ing door, an ele­phant call and a wolf howl. Six ad­ju­di­ca­tors were then asked to rate whether the vo­cal­i­sa­tion matched the orig­i­nal word or noise.

Whales and dol­phins are among the few an­i­mals other than hu­mans that can learn to pro­duce a novel sound just by hear­ing it. “In mam­mals it is very rare,” said Dr Josep Call of the Univer­sity of St An­drews, a co-re­searcher on the study. “Hu­mans ob­vi­ously are good at it... In­ter­est­ingly, the mam­mals that can do best are marine mam­mals.” Killer whales are known to live in groups with unique vo­cal ‘di­alects’ – learned sounds used for com­mu­ni­ca­tion that are kept within a par­tic­u­lar pop­u­la­tion and passed to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Pods ‘talk’ to each other us­ing com­plex clicks and singing, even when they are 100 miles apart. Killer whales both in the wild and in cap­tiv­ity have also been ob­served copy­ing dol­phin calls and the barks of sea lions. Vo­cal im­i­ta­tion is a hall­mark of hu­man spo­ken lan­guage, yet in other an­i­mals it is strik­ingly rare. Dol­phins and bel­uga whales are among the few mam­mals that can copy sounds from other species or each other. Some birds can mimic hu­man speech, no­tably par­rots, but also some mem­bers of the crow fam­ily.

Dr Jose Abram­son, from Com­plutense Univer­sity of Madrid, a co-re­searcher on the study, said ba­sic ‘con­ver­sa­tions’ with Wikie might one day be pos­si­ble. “Yes, it’s con­ceiv­able... if you have la­bels, de­scrip­tions of what things are,” he said. “It has been done be­fore with a fa­mous grey par­rot [Alex, FT56:9, 230:28] and dol­phins us­ing Amer­i­can sign lan­guage; sen­tences like ‘bring me this ob­ject’ or ‘put this ob­ject above or be­low the other’.” How­ever, he said we have to be care­ful about im­pos­ing hu­man con­cepts on an­i­mals, as there is more to gain by try­ing to un­der­stand the nat­u­ral way each species com­mu­ni­cates in its own en­vi­ron­ment. The ex­per­i­ments are re­ported in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal So­ci­ety of Lon­don B. BBC News, D.Tele­graph, D.Mail, Metro, 31 Jan 2018.

Cu­ri­ously, few of the re­cent press re­ports men­tion Noc, a bel­uga whale in cap­tiv­ity in San Diego, Cal­i­for­nia, whose un­usual vo­cal­i­sa­tions were first noted in 1984. Ac­cord­ing to a 2012 study in Cur­rent Bi­ol­ogy, Noc (who died in 2007) was try­ing to “reach out” to his hu­man cap­tors. And back in 1981, a seal in a Bos­ton aquar­ium called Hoover could say “Hello there”, “How are ya?”, “Come over here”, “Get outta here”, “get down” and “Hoover” – all with a dis­tinct Bos­ton ac­cent. Whether Hoover un­der­stood what he said was of course un­know­able [ FT296:10-11].

The fact that it was thought nec­es­sary to con­sult six judges to as­sess whether Wikie’s vo­cal­i­sa­tions matched words re­minds us of the pit­falls of parei­do­lia, the hu­man ten­dency to per­ceive or­der in ran­dom data: the BlessedVir­gin Mary ap­pears in damp stains and the dead seem to speak though a fog of recorded white noise. Scep­tics sug­gest parei­do­lia prob­a­bly ac­counts for some tales of talk­ing an­i­mals. Batyr, the talk­ing ele­phant of Kaza­khstan, in 1977 was heard to say (in Rus­sian) such things as “Batyr good boy. Go away”. In 2012 came news of Koshik, an ele­phant in South Ko­rea that had learnt at least five Korean words. And in 1993 a cat called Cin­gene (Gypsy) from Izmir clearly spoke at least seven Turk­ish words on tele­vi­sion in­clud­ing ver (give),

Nalan (a girl’s name), Derya (an­other girl’s name), de­mem (‘I don’t say’), nay­nay (baby talk for mu­sic), nine (col­lo­quial word for grand­mother) and babaanne (for­mal word for grand­mother). Our Turk­ish cor­re­spon­dent Izzet Goksu told us the words were clearly au­di­ble. In the very early days, FT pub­lished a 1968 news re­port about Pala, an­other cat that could speak Turk­ish. As I sug­gested in 2012: “Per­haps cats all over the world are talk­ing Turk­ish, and we just don’t no­tice” [ FT3:3, 296:10]. The Gang of Fort fondly re­calls the talk­ing tor­toise of Uganda in 1978 [ FT27:39], and the talk­ing carp in a New York fish mar­ket in 2003 [ FT171:9].

A study made be­tween 2010 and 2014 dis­cov­ered that a 200-strong bow­head whale colony off Spits­ber­gen, Nor­way, has a reper­toire of 184 songs. They sing in a freeform way that in­volves im­pro­vis­ing around one of the tunes. Bow­head ‘mu­sic’ con­trasts with that of the hump­back, which pro­duces melo­di­ous and less var­i­ous songs com­mon to each male pop­u­la­tion. “If hump­back whale song is like clas­si­cal mu­sic, bow­heads are jazz,” said lead re­searcher Dr Kate Stafford from the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton in Seat­tle. “The sound is more freeform. And when we looked through four win­ters of acous­tic data, not only were there never any song types re­peated be­tween years, but each sea­son had a new set of songs. It was as­ton­ish­ing; bow­head whales were singing loudly, 24 hours a day, from Novem­ber un­til April. And they were singing many, many dif­fer­ent songs.” It is not known if it is only the males that sing, whether any of their songs are shared be­tween in­di­vid­u­als or why their tunes con­tin­u­ally change – or in­deed why they sing in the first place. Could it be courtship or maybe ter­ri­to­rial de­fence? Bow­heads (so called be­cause of their huge domed skulls) have the largest mouth of any an­i­mal. They can weigh up to 100 tons and live for up to 200 years. Once hunted to near-ex­tinc­tion, there are now an es­ti­mated 10,000 world­wide. The re­search is pub­lished in the Royal So­ci­ety jour­nal Bi­ol­ogy Let­ters. D.Mail, Metro, 4 April 2018.

LEFT: Com­mu­ni­cat­ing with or­cas at the Marineland Aquar­ium in An­tibes, France.

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