By Devanshi Saxena
In what is considered to be a breakthrough in this area, a team of international researchers have taught a female orca whale to imitate human speech. A captive killer whale called Wikie, housed at Marineland in Antibes in southern France, is uttering noises that mimic the human sounds- ‘Hello’, ‘bye-bye’ as well as ‘One, two, three’ plus, apparently, the word ‘Amy’—the name of its trainer. The sounds that emerged were parrot-like squawks, shrill whistles or raspberries, but mostly clear enough to easily apprehend. Predictably, within hours of the release of the scientific paper, Wikie has become something of an online celebrity.
The research segment
The study was divided into three fundamental phases: retraining and reinforcing to understand “copy”, vocalising sounds that Wikie had already performed herself, and testing with different sounds previously unknown to Wikie. The results obtained lend support to the hypothesis that “the vocal variants observed in natural populations of this species can be socially learned by imitation. The capacity for vocal imitation shown in this study may scaffold the natural vocal traditions of killer orca whales in the wild.”
The larynx or the voice-box is the principal sound-producing organ in most of the mammals. The motor ability possessed by humans controls our speech aptitude. Wikie’s audible performance becomes even more remarkable as we consider that toothed cetaceans (eg. orca whales and dolphins), unlike humans, produce sounds in their nasal passages.
However, when it comes to vocal imitation, cetaceans– the mammal group that includes whales and dolphins– are known to be highly adept to copy sounds from other species. In their natural habitat, it has been reported that different killer whale groups demonstrate unique vocal “dialects”, and there have been documented instances of copying noises made by other species. It is still dubious as to why some animals learn to mimic but a plausible explanation can be to assume that deception or influencing potential mates can be an important reason.
Mastering human form of speech?
Wikie’s extraordinary feat may promote the prospect of whales becoming proficient in two-way speech communication as practised by humans. However, as pointed out by the researchers, it is highly unlikely that the animal could comprehend the meaning of the sounds it was producing. It can definitely be deduced from the experiments that killer whales and other cetaceans have a highly developed social intelligence but it lacks in cultural and social learning aspects which are an integral constituent of human intelligence. Moreover, after the initial experimentation, future research prospects could be specifically developed to explore the possibility of whales being able to comprehend the sounds made by them. As the studies in this particular field progress, it provides for a fascinating arena to explore: whether the sounds produced will be used to interact with humans or to intermingle with the other whales.
An initiative to liberate the ‘talking whale’
The research prospects associated to a ‘talking whale’ have garnered the interests of the biologists all over the world but the research has prompted sharp criticism from campaigners who argue that whales should not be “imprisoned” and isolated from their natural habitat. The experiments were carried out at Marineland Aquarium in southern France, which has faced criticism during 2015 after one its killer whales had died during flooding. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said that “orcas belong in the wild where each family has its own “culture and a unique group dialect”. As stated by the charity’s director, Elisa Allen, “How deeply ironic that this research, which speaks volumes of the emotional intelligence of orcas, was conducted in a marine park’s cement cell, where they’re imprisoned and denied everything that’s natural and important to them in order to make money from tourists”.
Amidst the diverse range of opinions, the researchers are of the view that the gains will be substantial if the focus is on comprehending and understanding the natural way each species communicates in its own environment rather than imposing human speech forms on the other species.
Featured Image Source: Pexels
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