Researchers are teaching an orca to speak human words

Still making a killing.
Still making a killing.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Her vocabulary only includes a handful of words, but with them, an orca at a French marine facility is proving that cetaceans can be taught how to pronounce specific sounds with their blowholes.

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. In the paper, researchers report their work with a 14-year-old female orca, kept in captivity at Mainland Aquarium in Antibes, France. (Female orcas, also known as killer whales, usually live about 50 years, but can live as long as 100.) Using hand commands that instructed the orca, named Wikie, to copy certain noises, the researchers were able to teach her how to say words including “hello,” “one, two, three,” and “Amy” (the orca’s trainer’s name was Amy Walton). The study was the first of its kind that attempted to get an orca to mimic human sounds.

The project is delightful, showing that killer whales can pick-up and reproduce novel sounds to a striking degree. Indeed, Wikie’s reproduction of the word “hello” sounds practically human. But it was for more than just human amusement. Researchers say it sheds light on how killer whales are able to develop pod-specific dialects, and to communicate cooperative strategies that can be employed while hunting.

The anatomical structures cetaceans—including whales, dolphins, and porpoises—use to make sounds are different from those used by land-dwelling mammals and birds. (Despite the name, killer whales are actually in the dolphin family.) Unlike humans, whales and dolphins “speak” through their nasal passages, and have sound-producing organs that scientists believe evolved to accommodate changing compression as the animals swim and dive through different levels of water pressure.

Scientists have hypothesized that these conditions are what led certain cetaceans to have vocal-learning skills relatively unique in the animal kingdom: they have above-average control of the sounds they make to accommodate these different water pressures.

Orcas in particular are known to engage in sing-song underwater conversations, with pods developing their own special dialects. They sometimes even attempt to communicate with other species: scientists have observed killer whales mimicking the sounds of bottlenose dolphins and sea lion barks. The question now on everyone’s mind, of course, is whether we’ll ever be able to actually talk to these sea creatures—and one of the researchers who worked on the study told BBC News that, indeed, the project’s success suggests rudimentary conversations with a trained orca may one day be possible.