Orca learns to say 'hello' and 'bye bye'

Orca learns to say 'hello' and 'bye bye'

High-pitched, eerie and yet distinct, the sound of a voice calling the name "Amy" is unmistakable. Such sounds were made by Wikie when she was partly flooded by her blowhole, which is a human equivalent for a nose bared in the air.

Orcas can say "hello", "bye-bye" and "one-two-three", while the voice doesn't make a ideal mimicry, but sounds impressively identifiable.

Killer whales are known to live in groups with unique vocal "dialects".

"In mammals it is very rare", said Dr Josep Call of the University of St Andrews, a co-researcher on the study.

"Therefore this result suggests this is also a plausible explanation for how killer whales in the wild learn the vocalisations of other killer whales and how they develop their dialects".

Then, the scientists compared her calls with the original sounds using dynamic time warping (DTW), an algorithm that maps two linear sequences, calculating where they match.

"But you have to be careful about imposing our human concepts on animals". Sounds made under the water may be quite different. "We have no evidence that they understand what their "hello" stands for", he said.

Say what? Orcas can mimic human speech - a few words of it, anyway.

Wikie, a captive 17-year-old orca, was taught a series of simple words and phrases including "hello" and "bye-bye".

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Wikie was then additionally exposed to five orca sounds she had never heard before, including noises resembling a creaking door and the blowing a raspberry.

"You can not pick a word that is very complicated because then I think you are asking too much - we wanted things that were short but were also distinctive", said Call.

The scientist who led the study said it was conceivable that basic conversations with her may one day be possible.

According to the research, produced by scientists from institutions in Germany, the UK, Spain and Chile, Wikie was able to make "recognisable copies of all familiar and novel" human sounds tested.

After listening to the human or whale sound, Wikie was requested to reproduce them by her trainer saying "do this".

In recordings of the experiment, Wikie takes several stabs at "hello".

While the sounds were all made and copied when the animals' heads were out of the water, Call said the study shed light on orca behaviour.

Killer whales both in the wild and in captivity have also been observed copying dolphin calls and the barks of sea lions.

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. Some birds can mimic human speech, notably parrots, but also some members of the crow family.

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