WHALE I NEVER
PAUL SIEVEKING talks to the animals – in this case, a 14-year-old captive orca that has reportedly learned to mimic human speech
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.