Scientists Have Taught Killer Whales to Speak English With Their Blowholes

Wednesday, 31 January 2018 - 10:50AM
Wednesday, 31 January 2018 - 10:50AM
Scientists Have Taught Killer Whales to Speak English With Their Blowholes
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Image credit: YouTube

Before you ask: Yes, you read the headline correctly, and no this isn't a Dr. Dolittle meets Free Willy shared universe kind of situation (yet).


Scientists at the Complutense University of Madrid have published a research paper about two female orcas named Wikie and Moana who were taught to speak through their blowholes by imitating human sounds. The audio of the killer whales squealing "hello," "bye bye," and counting to three is super creepy, but the fact that you can make out the words through the sounds is fascinating.

According to the research, cetaceans (marine mammals like orcas, dolphins, and porpoises) are "one of the few mammalian taxa capable of vocal production learning," meaning they are able to imitate novel sounds. Orcas have been documented as having different vocal dialects between pods in a population, dialects which are believed to be picked up through social learning.


In the study published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the team introduced the whales to sounds using a "do-as-i-do training method" that has proven successful for dogs, primates, and birds. Visual representations of the mimicked sounds showed that while the whale noises did not "sound" perfect, they did "look" like the sounds that they were supposed to be repeating.

"The results reported here show that killer whales have evolved the ability to control sound production and qualify as open-ended vocal learners," wrote the researchers in the study's discussion. They acknowledged that because the whales were learning and mimicking sounds above water and because there may have been differences in motivational levels across sessions, the results may been affected, but the overall objective of the experiment remained the same. 

"Our main objective was to test whether the killer whales were capable of learning novel sounds through imitative learning, regardless of the type of sound (in-air versus in-water) and the model (conspecifics versus heterospecifics). The atypical nature of the sounds that we used represents a strength rather than a weakness in relation to our main question because it evidences flexibility not just on what is copied but on how is copied. With regard to what is copied, our data show that killer whales can copy sounds outside their usual repertoire-which is an important piece of information if one wants to know not only what a species does, but also what it can do, under a variable set of circumstances."

Now that we've seen and heard what orcas can do, we'd be perfectly happy never seeing or hearing it again!

Science News