Can killer whales speak human? That may depend on whether you think speaking requires the transmission of meaning, but a new study confirms that killer whales can definitely “speak” the same sounds as humans, imitating words like “hello,” “bye bye,” and “one, two.”
Sounds that humans make while speaking exist far outside the regular range that killer whales, Orcinus orca, usually make. However, killer whales have their own accents and dialects—unique sounds created only within their groups (called pods). If killer whales move pods or are displaced into a different one, the sounds they make to communicate with fellow killer whales adapt to the new environment.
This is key to their ability to mimic human speech. It means they can learn and use new sounds, and actually, depend on doing so for survival.
Listen to a killer whale say ‘hello!’
In the study, these whales learned to mimic words like “hello,” “bye bye,” and “one, two.” However, as co-author of the study, Josep Call cautioned, “We have no evidence that they understand what their ‘hello’ stands for.”
An orca performs on August 11, 2013, at the Marineland animal exhibition park in the French Riviera city of Antibes, southeastern France. AFP PHOTO / VALERY HACHE (Photo credit should read VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
The story is available in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, in a paper titled, Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca). A simpler version is explained in The Guardian.
This discovery means killer whales join the relatively limited group of creatures that can mimic human speech — some birds, elephants, orangutans, bats, seals, and other cetacean species such as bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales.