Orcas are phenomenally intelligent marine mammals which interact with peers in a complex social environment. The scientific study is well conceived and thoroughly done (please see the abstract at the end of this article), and essentially was done to validate that orcas can learn dialects from both conspecifics and humans.
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. The orca speech is the equivalent of us blowing our noses, so the fact that Wikie was able to mimic human words with such accuracy is an interesting phenomenon.
Finally, Wikie was exposed to a human making three of the orca sounds, as well as six human sounds, including "hello", "Amy", "ah ha", "one, two" and "bye bye".
The researchers were studying a 14-year-old female killer whale named Wikie, who was well-trained and had been taught how to copy behaviours in a previous study. Here's what they sound like.
The orca's human-like vocalizations represent a breakthrough, as it is the first time such capacity for imitation has been shown in the species.
Co-author of the study Joseph Call professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews said, "In mammals, it is very rare".
The scientists compared the original sounds with the help of a computer algorithm called dynamic time warping (DTW). Her two trainers judged her success and then confirmed the final conclusion.
The rate of successful "pronunciation" also varied.
The creatures already have the ability to copy the movements of other orcas and now this new research reveals that the creatures can also emulate unknown sounds produced by other orcas. Other animals like dolphin, parrots, and elephants use different physical mechanisms to copy human words. It is well known, of course, in a few species of birds - notably parrots and mynahs.
But all of these animals have somewhat similar morphology, which is why the orca feat is so much more impressive. The same cannot be said for toothed cetaceans (think whales and dolphins) as they produce sounds in their nasal passages, thus making Wikie's audible performance even more remarkable. There is no evidence that suggests this, in any case.
However, because the experiments were conducted above water, the results don't indicate how accurately wild orcas may reproduce unfamiliar sounds that they hear underwater, and further investigation will be required to gauge the role that mimicry plays in orcas' social communication, the scientists wrote in the study. More research might confirm this hunch.