Orcas, also known as killer whales, are powerful predators, so it might seem a little intimidating to strike up a conversation with one. But research published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B demonstrates that a captive orca named Wikie is actually capable of mimicking some basic human words, like ”hello” and “bye bye,” through her blowhole.
You can listen for yourself here but be warned—there will be fart noises, and they will be funny.
These “repeat after me” experiments between Wikie and her trainers were partially inspired by substantial evidence that wild orcas—and other cetaceans—speak in local dialects, suggesting that they learn their own marine language through imitation. As a performer orca at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, Wikie was an ideal research subject because she is already trained to understand gestures from her handlers signaling that she copy their actions.
A team of scientists led by Jose Abramson of the Complutense University of Madrid recorded Wikie’s attempted pronunciations of human speech, and were delighted by how well she was able to emulate certain words. "When we tried 'hello' and she did the sound, some emotional responses came from the trainers,” Abramson recalled in a statement. “For us (the scientists) it was very difficult not to say anything."
Of course, Wikie also decided to use her blowhole to vocalize some truly exquisite “raspberries,” aka “Bronx cheers,” which are thoses flatulent sound humans make while sticking out our tongues. She may not be the most polite conversationalist, but her efforts to ape human words has shed new light on the mysterious linguistic capabilities of orcas.
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