Orcas can imitate calls from other whales and even human speech—suggesting they can transmit cultural practices, such as unique dialects. Christopher Intagliata reports.
Killer whales, also called orcas, are like dolphins and belugas—they all have a wide vocal repertoire. <<orca sounds>> But orcas also have unique dialects among different pods. Which suggests the animals can learn new and unique sounds by imitating mom, or another whale.
Researchers tested that premise by asking a killer whale named Wikie to imitate novel sounds from another killer whale, like this [Wolf sound] or this [creaking door sound].
And then: Wikie's trainers asked her to imitate them speaking English. Here's how she did: ["Amy, hello"]
Pretty impressive, especially because she's using her nasal passages to imitate sounds we make with our vocal cords.
And a technical acoustic analysis of the original and imitated sounds showed that Wikie was doing a reliable job of mimicry, suggesting orcas do indeed possess the ability of vocal imitation. The study is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. [Jose Z. Abramson et al., Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca)]
So how long before Wikie's fluent in English? Well: "This is not our goal." Study author José Zamorano-Abramson, a comparative psychologist. "We are focusing on one aspect of vocal language, which is the capacity for vocal imitation." Because the ability to imitate implies a way to transmit culture… and preserve each orca pod's unique repertoire. ["bye bye"]
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]