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A 14-year-old with a vocabulary comprising four or five rudimentary words may not sound impressive. However, it sure is when the speaker happens to be an orca, or killer, whale! The amazing discovery, along with the recording of the vocalization, was unveiled in a January 31 study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The research team, led by José Zamorano-Abramson, a postdoctoral researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, began recording the 14-year mammal, who resides at Marineland in Antibes, France, in 2014. The experiment was conducted to test the theory that killer whales learn sounds from social settings. Wikie, who has spent most of her life at the aquatic park, is accustomed to mimicking her trainer’s actions in exchange for fish, and was, therefore, the perfect candidate for the job.
The team began by presenting Wikie with the sounds she was already familiar with — like a noisy breath or a piercing peeping sound. They then introduced new sounds the mammal had never been exposed to before. These included mimicking the squeak of a creaky door and the sound of an elephant call. While Wikie stepped up to the challenge each time, the ultimate test to prove the hypothesis was to see if the killer whale could replicate human sounds.
To investigate, the researchers introduced Wikie to a few simple words: "Ah ah," "hello," "bye-bye," "one-two-three,” and the name of her trainer, “Amy.” To their delight, she mimicked “hello” instantly. Though the others took a little longer, the smart mammal was eventually able to master them all. The cheeky whale even learned how to blow a raspberry! The researchers, who compared the recordings of the original and imitation sounds and successfully tested them with human listeners, say that Wikie’s imitations, while not "perfect,” are definitely "recognizable.”
Wikie, of course, does not understand what she is saying. She is merely copying the sounds to obtain the reward that follows every attempt. However, it once again demonstrates the mammals’ intelligence. Abrahamson says imitation skills are important for animals in the wild because it allows them to learn from their peers. In contrast, learning through trial and error "can be very expensive... you can die just trying poisonous fish, for example, for killer whales. But if you learn from the experience of the others it's more safe.” The researcher, believes species that have this ability can adapt more easily to changes in their environment and increase their chances of survival.
Resources: Phys.org, mashable.com, smithsonianmag.com, npr.org