60-Second Science

Whale Mimics Human Speech

A captive beluga whale has altered his normal songs to more closely approximate human pitch and rhythms. Christopher Intagliata reports

You've probably heard parrots parrot human speech. But what about this? That strange kazooing sound is from a whale. 

It’s a captive beluga whale named NOC. And researchers say it's his attempt to mimic the sound of humans talking.

Back in 1984 a diver at the National Marine Mammal Foundation surfaced from the whale tank, and said, "Who told me to get out?" Turns out, no one did. Well, no human did. The "out" sound came from NOC the whale.

When researchers compared recordings of NOC to human speech, they found that the rhythm of his utterings indeed matched that of humans. So did the pitch, at several octaves lower than the whales' usual clicks and whistles. NOC made these 'human' sounds by tweaking the pressures in his nasal cavity, and stretching a pair of vibrating lip-like structures within his blowhole. Their research appears in the journal Current Biology. [Sam Ridgway et al., Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean]

For centuries, sailors have called belugas "sea canaries," for their musical squeaks and chirps. But this beluga turned out to be less canary and more parrot.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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