You may have heard parrots mimic human words, a dog’s bark, and even R2-D2’s beeps and boops. They’re not the only animals who can approximate human speech, though. While the ability to mimic voices has long been thought to be unique to humans and a handful of other animal species, emerging evidence suggests that we aren’t as special as we thought.
In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a team of researchers at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and Complutense University of Madrid demonstrated that a killer whale (Orcinus orca) can mimic the sounds made by humans as well as by other killer whales after just a few trial sessions.
They used a 14-year-old female killer whale named Wikie, who’s housed at Marineland,, an aquarium in Antibes, France, as a test subject. She’d already been trained to copy someone in exchange for a fish reward, so it was easy to get her to attempt to imitate the vocalizations of her three-year-old calf, Moana, and a human trainer. Using computers to analyze the vocalizations, they found that Wikie was able to roughly mimic the syllables and some of the consonants of the human words.
“Although the subject did not make perfect copies of all novel conspecific [within the same species] and human sounds, they were recognizable copies as assessed by both external independent blind observers and the acoustic analysis,” the study’s authors wrote.
Sure, it’s cool to hear a whale trying to imitate a human’s voice, even if sometimes it sounds more like fart-screams than words. But the ability to roughly imitate sounds is more than just a mere novelty act, the researchers say.
“Among cetaceans, the killer whale (Orcinus orca) stands out regarding vocal dialects in the wild,” they write. “Each matrilineal unit or pod within a population has been documented to have a unique vocal dialect, including a combination of unique and shared call types. These dialects are believed to be transmitted via social learning, not only from mother to offspring (vertical transmission), but also between matrilines (horizontal transmission).”
So this isn’t just an experiment that shows whales are good at copying a human; it demonstrates that whales could have culture. Or, at least, the whale version of culture, in which forms of communication are transmitted among members of a group in a non-genetic way — which, coincidentally, is roughly the same as Richard Dawkins’s definition of a meme. So in a sense, killer whales are the memers of the sea.
Abstract: Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fuelled the evolution of human culture. Comparative evidence has revealed that although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is mostly uniquely human among primates, a few distantly related taxa of birds and mammals have also independently evolved this capacity. Remarkably, field observations of killer whales have documented the existence of group-differentiated vocal dialects that are often referred to as traditions or cultures and are hypothesized to be acquired non-genetically. Here we use a do-as-I-do paradigm to study the abilities of a killer whale to imitate novel sounds uttered by conspecific (vocal imitative learning) and human models (vocal mimicry). We found that the subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel conspecific and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly (most during the first 10 trials and three in the first attempt). Our results lend support to the hypothesis that the vocal variants observed in natural populations of this species can be socially learned by imitation. The capacity for vocal imitation shown in this study may scaffold the natural vocal traditions of killer whales in the wild.