We all know that parrots can mimic the sounds humans make. But can you imagine an orca (killer whale) doing the same?
Wikie, a 14-year-old captive orca in Antibes, France was able to follow her trainers and imitate words such as “Amy”, “Hello”, “Bye-Bye”, and “One-two-three”!
This does not mean that they can understand what they are saying, more like they are copying the noises as best as possible. Their talent in mimicry isn’t unreasonable, seeing as orcas are extremely intelligent, and have the second biggest brain in comparison to all their ocean friends.
How Do Orcas Communicate?
Before this discovery, scientists already knew that orcas communicated within their pods of around forty whales.
Did you know that orcas don’t use their mouths, but their noses (known as blowholes) to make sounds? Above an orca’s skull, a system of pneumatic sacs (or nasal cavities) is connected to the nasal passage. Scientists theorize that orcas force air between the nasal sacs and the blowholes to produce a range of sounds from 0.1 kilohertz to 40 kilohertz. Their normal croons tend to be at 16 kilohertz.
When they blow air through the sacs, they vibrate a pair of lips (known as phonic lips or monkey lips) to create different noises. This is completely different from human noise production. We force air through our larynx, causing the vocal cords to vibrate and produce sound. We then use our lips and throat to form words and noises.
Each orca pod has a series of different calls. While the calls do bear some resemblance to other pods, they are unique enough that scientists can differentiate between pods. Orcas use their calls to echolocate, which means navigate with sound. They also use it to warn other orcas of dangers in the waters around them.
Mammals That Mimic
While mimicry is more common in birds, it tends to be rarer in mammals. The only mammals known so far are bats, humans, elephants, seals, and cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Scientists think that these mammals may have developed mimicry to survive and adapt to different pods or groups. t may have made their ancestors more attractive, and therefore more likely to pass on traits.
For example, margays (Amazonian wild cats) can mimic the call of their prey, pied tamarins, in order to lure them in. A 22-year-old Asian elephant in Seoul, South Korea, can mimic five human words by placing his trunk inside his mouth and trumpeting. Beluga whales can also do the same. Remember Hoover the talking seal? He was a harbor seal that could mimic humans - right down to the Bostonian accent of his home! Predators use mimicry to lure prey in for the kill, prey use it to throw off predators from their trail, and some animals can be trained to do it for fun.
Should we train animals to mimic? Animal rights supporters argue that it is cruel and unjust to train animals for our own amusement. Some scientists say that orcas only mimic humans when they are bored and lonely and that humans should focus on helping them, not training them.
Wikie's trainers deny any cruelty towards her and if there is one thing we have learned from the female orca, these animals are extremely intelligent. And now, let's listen to Wikie...
Sources: BBC, Guardian, Livescience, Seaworld.org, Phys.org, mentalfloss, russianorca.com