In one of the first studies of its kind, an international team of scientists is claiming to have taught a killer whale to imitate human vocal sounds. If confirmed, it would mark one of the first times that aquatic mammals have been observed to imitate human vocal sounds. The nightmare-inducing audio can be heard here:
Ok, sure, whatever you say scientists. The team taught the 14-year-old orca to “speak” using the same training methods used to train orcas to perform tricks. By using the same “do-as-I-do” hand signal used to teach her to imitate other orcas, trainers got the orca to imitate the sounds of several words and phrases including “hello,” “goodbye,” and “one, two, three.” The sounds were all words she had not heard before, and the orca was able to imitate four of the sounds on her first try.
Orcas are known to communicate in the wild using dialects which are specific to different populations and can vary from pod to pod. That learning ability is what enabled this particular orca to imitate human language. According to their published study, researchers believe this ability dates back to the vocal abilities of the land-based ancestors of modern aquatic mammals, or cetaceans:
Our data might indicate that the sensory–perceptual and cognitive skills recruited in imitating in-air sounds are ancestral traits, dating back to the terrestrial ancestors of cetaceans. Moreover, given the highly derived state of the sound-producing apparatus uniquely evolved by cetaceans, the imitative capacities found in this study also underscore the fine-tuned ability of this species to flexibly produce accurate matches of heterospecific in-air sounds.
That’s a terrifying thought: a killer whale walking around on land screaming his head off. While this isn’t exactly a breakthrough in terms of animal communication, it does open new doors in the attempt to truly talk with our animal cousins.
The attempt to communicate with animals has been an obsession of scientists for quite some time. While we’ve made some strides in teaching primates basic sign language or decoding the dances of bees, we’ve yet to reach a point where we can actually understand the vocalizations of animals on a true syntactic or lexical level – if animals even speak according to syntax and lexis anyway. Parrots can learn to mimic human vocal sounds, and a few individual parrots have been observed to be capable of answering basic questions about objects presented to them. Still, we’ve yet to really talk to an animal. Who knows what hidden secrets are stored in the collective consciousnesses of our neighbors here in the animal kingdom?