A killer whale can say things like "hello", "bye-bye" and "one two three" after a team of scientists taught her to imitate human speech sounds.
"Whether they could use this vocalization, these sounds they produce, whether they could use them to interact with humans or with other killer whales is an open question, it's a fascinating question", he said.
Researchers have taught an orca, also known as a killer whale, to imitate human speech sounds.
The whale words were also analysed in waveform and matched the human words when the acoustical recordings were compared.
Its trainers are aware that the orca may not understand what she is saying.
In the new trial, Wikie was trained to understand a "copy" signal then invited to repeat 11 completely new sounds given by her trainer.
In the wild, it has been found that different killer whale pods use unique vocal dialects.
In the study, these whales learned to mimic words like "hello", "bye bye", and "one, two". She easily developed sounds resembling a creaking door and the blowing of a raspberry.
After first brushing up Wikie's grasp of the "copy" command, she was trained to parrot three familiar orca sounds made by her three-year old calf Moana. Researchers suspected this was the case, but hadn't gathered enough evidence of orcas learning and mimicking sounds.
The global team behind the study included Professor Josep Call, a psychologist from St Andrews University's school of neuroscience.
Wikie's success takes the number non-human mammal species capable of imitating human speech to four. When we tried "hello" and she did the sound... some emotional responses came from the trainers.
Diana Reiss, an expert in dolphin communication and professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of NY, welcomed the research, noting that it extends our understanding of orcas' vocal abilities, with Wikie able to apply a "copy" command learned for imitation of actions to imitation of sounds. Belugas and bottlenose dolphins have been observed doing it, as well as elephants.
That's according to a new study published this week (Jan. 31) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences.
The ability of this orca to produce human sounds is especially significant due to the species' anatomy. She was then exposed to five different orca sounds that were unfamiliar to her. The same cannot be said for toothed cetaceans (think whales and dolphins) as they produce sounds in their nasal passages, thus making Wikie's audible performance even more remarkable.