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How Well Can Orca Whales Mimic Human Speech?

Scientists have previously documented that when a pod of orca whales moves to a new location, their vocalizations change in order to match those of other whales in the area -- evidence that their haunting songs evolve over time. A group of scientists at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, wanted to know if these intelligent creatures could also mimic human speech, so they worked with a well-trained female orca whale named Wikie. She quickly learned to mimic English words such as “hello,” “one-two-three,” and “bye-bye.”

A whale of a discovery:

  • Most mammals use the larynx to produce sound, but whales and dolphins make sounds through their nasal passages.
  • Wikie’s pronunciation is far from perfect, but she can copy the syllables and cadence of the words. Her “hello” is particularly good and her version of a raspberry, a human noise signaling disapproval, is spot on.
  • Parrots and several other bird species excel in mimicry. Elephants, bottle-nosed dolphins, and seals have also been taught to mimic human speech.
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