167 — Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca)
A few years ago I read The Dogs of Babel on a recommendation and I completely missed the point of the book because I was so fixated on the creepiness factor of inducing human language abilities in dogs. That’s not really a spoiler alert, because the name of the book and its synopsis kinda gives it away.
All of my worst fears are real, because researchers trained orcas to mimic human actions and then started talking — and the orca imitated the vocalizations with surprising (¡creepy!) accuracy.
I do want to quickly jump in here and remind everyone that these are killer whales that we are teaching to speak English. So when they take over, I want you to know that I called it, and it’s no one’s fault but our own. Hubris! Hubris, I say!
Cetaceans are known to vocalize in order to imitate other individuals or even other species: This behavior has been seen before in bottlenose dolphins and belugas (BELUUUUGA). But to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time complex human sounds have been intentionally taught and successfully emulated.
In short: The trainers teach the orca to vocalize a certain phrase, and the orca reproduces the vocalization as closely as possible. Recordings of the imitations are available here and you should absolutely listen to them because it is clear that the Reign of Humans is soon to end.
Not only does this research show that orcas are capable of human sound emulation; it also shows that orcas are very fast learners, only requiring a few instances of a novel sound before they are able to reproduce it. The researchers hypothesize that cetaceans developed so flexible a vocalization repertoire because of the bioacoustic challenge of creating the same sounds at different depths in the water column as well as both above and below the surface of the water.
I also thought it was very interesting that the orcas imitated the pitch as well as the phonetics of the vocalizations. We know that orca communication is highly dependent on pitch changes and I wonder if orcas interpret human speech as a uniformly tonal “language.”