Wikie can say “hello” and “bye bye.” She also can count to three.
It’s perhaps not too amazing – unless you’re an orca.
Scientists taught Wikie, an orca at Marineland aquarium in Antibes, France, to mimic human speech using her blowhole, the BBC reported. She’s thought to be the first orca to copy human speech. Commonly known as “killer whales,” orcas are actually the largest species of dolphin.
Whales and dolphins are among the few animals that can learn to reproduce a novel sound by hearing it.
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“In mammals it is very rare,” Josep Call of the University of St Andrews, a co-researcher on the study, told the BBC. “Humans obviously are good at it ... Interestingly, the mammals that can do best are marine mammals.”
Researchers worked with Wikie, a 14-year-old captive orca at the aquarium, to teach her to mimic human speech, according to Scientific American. In 30 trials, scientists played recordings of unfamiliar sounds and words spoken by her trainers. Her trainers then instructed Wikie to copy the noises as in-air vocalizations through her blowhole.
Scientists compared her calls with the original sounds by analyzing the soundwaves, reported the publication. Blindfolded judges also compared the audio samples. In all 30 cases, Wikie successfully copied the words, most in fewer than 10 tries.
Wikie reproduced some phrases, such as “hello” and “one two three,” on her first try, Scientific American reported. She also learned to say “Amy,” the name of one of her trainers.
However, research on other animals that mimic human speech – such as an elephant named Koshik at a South Korean zoo – suggests they do not necessarily understand what they’re saying.
“Koshik mainly seems to be using these vocalizations as a way of bonding with people, rather than for their meaning,” Angela Stoeger-Horwath, a bioacoustician at the University of Vienna, told Live Science.
But Jose Abramson, from Complutense University of Madrid in Spain, a co-researcher on the study on Wikie, told the BBC that basic conversations with the orca may someday 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 and dolphins using American sign language; sentences like ‘bring me this object’ or ‘put this object above or below the other.’ ”