Read My Lips

Scientists have reported a remarkable case of a white whale who learned to mimic the sounds of a human voice.

Dolphins can copy human sounds if trained, but scientists haven’t yet found that the animals will start imitating people on their own. Some whales also sound uncannily human at times: Researchers have compared the calls of wild white whales to the shouts of children, and one white whale at a Canadian aquarium was even thought to say his name.

The study authors describe the vocalizations of a white whale at a San Diego Bay facility who “began, spontaneously, to make unusual sounds,” they write in Current Biology. The whale, named NOC, could hear people talking at the surface, as well as the conversations of divers. At one point, NOC appeared to make noises similar to the word “out”, prompting a diver to emerge from the water and ask, “Who told me to get out?”

The team recorded NOC’s sounds and found that the rhythm and frequencies resembled those of a person talking. To mimic people, the whale had lowered his voice by several octaves.

“We do not claim that our whale was a good mimic compared to such well-known mimics as parrots or mynah birds,” the researchers write. But they do believe that NOC learned the sounds from nearby people. After four years, NOC became less chatty: Although he still made plenty of noise, he stopped talking like a human. Roberta Kwok | 22 October 2012

Source: Ridgway, S. et al. 2012. Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean. Current Biology doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.044.

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