Orcas imitate human speech
Researchers from institutions in Germany, UK, Spain and Chile published a paper last month on their experiences with an orca whale named Wilkie. Wilkie has been trained to mimic human sounds.
Wilkie was exposed to six human sounds including “hello”, “Amy”, “ah ha”, “one,two”, and”bye bye”. She was able to copy each of the human sounds, as well as five orca sounds.
Although there is no indication the Wilkie understand the words that she is mimicking, this experiment gives new information about how orcas might communicate in the wild. It provides evidence that orcas learn sounds through vocal imitation, which is the basis of dialects that are seen with orcas in the wild. To test this idea, trials would need to be carried out with orcas that are living in the wild.
Our Wild Orca Whales:
We have known that orca whales in the wild communicate in distinctive languages specific to their pods since the 1990’s. In the Salish Sea (the waterway between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia) there is a group of resident orca whales, also called the southern resident killer whales. They have their own distinct culture, language, and genealogy.
They are having a difficult time. In 2016 seven members of the orca population died, with only 78 resident whales swimming (and speaking) left last summer. The reasons for their decline include infection, starvation and conflict with large ships (collisions and noise pollution). For creatures that rely on echolocation to see and communicate with one another, we have not created a thriving environment. Ship noise masks the animals calls to each other as well as the sounds they make to use to hunt for food.
Kim Dunn, an oceans specialist with World Wildlife Fund Canada remarked that this noise pollution is among the biggest threats to the whales.
If the Kinder Morgan pipeline is completed, tanker traffic will increase seven fold. In this scenario the water will become too noisy for the orca to communicate or hunt.
The Canadian government committed to an action plan in 2017 that included 98 possible measures to help our whales. The action plan did not include specifics, or measurable actions to address the threats to this population.
If whales could speak to us, what do you think they would say?