Researchers are teaching an orca to speak human words

The killer whale was able to mimic the duration and pitch of human speech coming close on three words to a ‘high-quality match’. File

The question now on everyone's mind, of course, is whether we'll ever be able to actually talk to these sea creatures-and one of the researchers who worked on the study told BBC News that, indeed, the project's success suggests rudimentary conversations with a trained orca may one day be possible.

The team says this display of imitation helps explain how pods of wild killer whales create their own dialect, and how captive whales change their calls to fit in with their new group when moved to different locations. And it is further evidence that these remarkable animals shouldn't be held in captivity.

"The intricacy of killer whale communication reflects their complex social structure and mental comprehension", Rachael Griffin, a biologist with Aquagreen Marine Research in Victoria, British Columbia, told Live Science in an email.

The researchers wrote in their paper that "Although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is wide-spread [sic] in birds, it is strikingly rare in mammals, and among primates it is uniquely human".

Scientists tested a 14-year-old killer whale named Wikie at the Marineland Aquarium in France.

In the wild, it has been found that different killer whale pods use unique vocal dialects.

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The trainer then made sounds not previously heard by the Orca and gave the signal for the whale to copy the sound. The researchers also had blindfolded judges listen to audio samples-original and orca-produced-and decide whether the recordings sounded similar.

Interestingly, DTW analysis showed that in some cases, Wikie's mimicry of unfamiliar sounds was better than her mimicry of familiar ones, the scientists noted.

Although the orca Wikie's ability to mimic human speech is perhaps the most notable takeaway from this study, she has also been observed twittering like a bird, squawking like a parrot, and even blowing raspberries - which Forbes reports she is particularly fond of.

But just because animals can mimic human sounds, that does not mean that they understand our language, she added. While humans use the larynx to speak, whales produce sounds through their nasal passages using bursts of air.

"Koshik mainly seems to be using these vocalizations as a way of bonding with people, rather than for their meaning", Stoeger-Horwath said.

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