Wikie was recorded mimicking English words like "hello", "bye bye" and "one two", as well as the name of her trainer, Amy.
Orcas can say "hello", "bye-bye" and "one-two-three", while the voice doesn't make a flawless mimicry, but sounds impressively identifiable. She was trained step by step.
The study was comprised of three phases: retraining and reinforcing to understand "copy"; vocalizing sounds that Wikie had already performed herself; and testing with novel or different sounds previously unknown to Wikie.
Killer whales live in pods in the wild and each has a dialect of its own.
In the study, these whales learned to mimic words like "hello", "bye bye", and "one, two".
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Although the orca Wikie's ability to mimic human speech is perhaps the most notable takeaway from this study, she has also been observed twittering like a bird, squawking like a parrot, and even blowing raspberries - which Forbes reports she is particularly fond of. What's more, two human utterances and all of the human-produced orca sounds were managed on the first attempt - although only one human sound - "hello" - was correctly produced more than 50% of the time on subsequent trials.
After first brushing up Wikie's grasp of the "copy" command, she was trained to parrot three familiar orca sounds made by her three-year old calf Moana. Orca dialects are therefore thought by some researchers to be evidence of "social learning", of traditions or cultures passed on geographically and down generations by non-genetic means.
Their newly-published research suggests whales' ability to imitate sounds helps them communicate in the wild.
And in 2006, scientists reported in the journal Biology Letters that a killer whale in Nootka Sound, British Columbia, could imitate a sea lion's bark - likely because the orca was solitary "and striving for attention", said Griffin, one of the researchers who analyzed those calls. It is for the first time that a mammal has been able to copy human words. The shackles imposed by training regimes created to get captive whales and dolphins to perform precise tricks and maneuvers curtail innovation, and innovation is exactly what is needed to keep highly intelligent animals mentally stimulated.
The study even released some of the audio files of Wikie trying to replicate some of the words she hears. This could add another layer of difficulty, though it also raises questions as to whether she would learn and repeat sounds differently underwater.
A year ago the company vowed to fight a ban on breeding killer whales and dolphins in captivity, claiming it would harm its animals.