Listen to a captive killer whale named ‘Wikie’ mimic ‘hello’ back to scientists

In 2014, scientists hauled their recording equipment into Marineland, an aquatic theme park located in the French resort town of Antibes. They wanted to see if a 14-year old orca whale living there, named Wikie, could listen to a huge diversity of sounds — from humans, elephants, and whales — and then mimic these noises back.

The experiment was designed to test the hypothesis,  supported other studies, that killer whales and other cetaceans learn sounds in social settings. 

According to their research, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Wikie successfully copied these sounds back to the researchers — although there’s certainly no evidence she was ever truly “talking.”

The team of scientists, which included neuroscientists and evolutionary researchers, wrote that their “main objective was to test whether the killer whales were capable of learning novel sounds through imitative learning…”

Below is a recording of Wikie mimicking the sound of “hello,” as spoken to her by trainers:

Previously, sea-faring scientists documented different pods of wild whales using their own culturally distinct “vocal dialects” to communicate. Now, thanks to this new study, there’s some direct experimental evidence about how these regional whale dialects may develop. 

After seeing Wikie’s ability to mimic a rich diversity of sounds, the researchers suggest that these intelligent animals can master their unique vocalizations through “social learning” — in other words, hanging out with each other and mimicking each others’ sound and language. 

While it’s still very much a mystery how different killer whales in disparate parts of the sea pass along unique sounds to their respective clans, they might be mimicking each other, similar to Wikie imitating the sounds of human voices.

Wikie, though, has never seen the ocean, having spent her life in captivity at Marineland for nearly 18 years. According to the Marineland website, she’s no longer performing alongside human trainers after an incident in which she “pushed a trainer underwater.”

Her captivity, while controversial —- SeaWorld announced in 2016 that it’s completely phasing out its captive orca program — did afford the research team an opportunity to study whale intelligence and language. Not only was Wikie in a controlled environment, but as a trained whale, she could be instructed to listen to the researcher’s sounds.

Three different set-ups were used to observe Wikie’s behavior in the Marineland pool. This included Wikie responding to live sounds made by her son, Moana, as well as mimicking some never-heard-before sounds played through a speaker.  

Image: royal society publishing 

The great limitation in this research, of course, is that only one whale was studied, and a trained whale at that. If more killer whales can be observed mimicking sounds, we’ll know that this isn’t simply a fluke — meaning just Wikie’s unique ability to mimic sound. 

Future opportunities to perform these studies in controlled settings, however, will grow increasingly limited as more theme parks, like SeaWorld, shutter their captive killer whale programs in response to public pressure. This means that scientists will need to seek answers to the many remaining questions by saying hello to these intelligent creatures in the wild.


from Mashable!