Killer whale that can say ‘hello’ amuses BBC hosts

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BBC Breakfast presenters Dan Walker and Louise Minchin were left in fits of giggles today as they listened to a whale being taught to mimic human speech.

The hosts laughed with each other on this morning’s programme as they heard how Wikie, a 16-year-old female orca has learnt to count to three.

There was much amusement at the sounds of the numbers, which emerge through her blowhole as parrot-like squawks, shrill whistles or raspberries.

BBC Breakfast presenters Dan Walker and Louise Minchin were left in fits of giggles today

The hosts giggled as they listened to a killer whale being taught to mimic human speech

The hosts giggled as they listened to a killer whale being taught to mimic human speech

Wikie is also said to have learnt how to say English words such as ‘hello’ and ‘bye bye’ and ‘Amy’ – her trainer’s name.

Minchin said: ‘Every time you hear it, you just can’t help yourself can you?’ Walker added: ‘I don’t know what it is about that noise, but it just does me every time.’

They listened to the sounds again, and Walker said: ‘It’s done me in now.’ As he continued laughing, Minchin asked: ‘Are you OK?’ And he replied: ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’

Viewers suggested on Twitter today that the whale might have been ‘making fart noises’, ‘speaking teenager’ – and even, rather rudely, ‘speaking Welsh’.

One added: ‘I don’t think that noise is actually coming from the whale. Will someone be rushing out after the show for some new pants?’ 

A mother called Melody from Sleaford, Lincolnshire, tweeted: ‘That whale is just making fart noises – trust me, I am the mother of three boys.’ 

Minchin said: 'Every time you hear it, you just can't help yourself can you?' Walker added: 'I don't know what it is about that noise, but it just does me every time'

Minchin said: ‘Every time you hear it, you just can’t help yourself can you?’ Walker added: ‘I don’t know what it is about that noise, but it just does me every time’

Another viewer said it reminded him of The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, a sketch made famous in BBC comedy The Two Ronnies in 1976.

The killer whale was able to mimic the duration and pitch of human speech, coming close on three words to a ‘high-quality match’.

How does a killer whale learn to talk?

A killer whale has been taught to speak human words through her blowhole.

Wikie, a 16-year-old female orca living in a French marine theme park, is able to copy words such as ‘hello’, ‘bye bye’ and ‘Amy’, as well as count to three.

In each trial, the killer whale was given a ‘do that’ hand signal by a researcher, but offered no food reward.

The recordings were rated by Wikie’s trainer and the researcher, as well as six independent observers.

Speech recognition software was also used to test how well she performed, which showed three words came close to the ‘high-quality match’ achieved by humans copying each other.

The sounds emerge from her blowhole as parrot-like squawks, shrill whistles or raspberries, but most are easily understandable as words.

Researchers did not set out to test Wikie’s communication skills, but the scientist who led the study believes basic ‘conversations’ with her may one day be possible.

Dr Jose Abramson, from Complutense de Madrid University in Spain, said: ‘Yes, it’s conceivable if you have labels, descriptions of what things are.

‘It has been done before with a famous grey parrot and dolphins using American sign language – sentences like ‘bring me this object’ or ‘put this object above or below the other’.’

The discovery, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, puts killer whales on a footing with humans.

While birds find it easy to mimic others, the skill is exceedingly rare in mammals, and no primates apart from people are able to do it.

The first sign that orcas can copy other animals came in studies which captured them barking like sea lions.

However Wikie, who lives in a French marine theme park in Antibes, is believed to be the first member of her species to mimic human speech.

The orca, which had taken part in previous behavioural studies, was taught to copy novel sounds and words from both another killer whale, her own three-year-old calf, Moana, and by humans. 

BBC viewers suggested on Twitter today that the whale might have been 'making fart noises', 'speaking teenager' and even 'speaking Welsh'

BBC viewers suggested on Twitter today that the whale might have been ‘making fart noises’, ‘speaking teenager’ and even ‘speaking Welsh’

The human sounds she copied included a laugh and the words ‘hello’, ‘bye bye’, ‘Amy’ and ‘one two three’. She was also trained to mimic noises such as a creaking door and a raspberry.

She ‘spoke’ while partially immersed in water with her blowhole exposed to the air. In each trial, the killer whale was given a ‘do that’ hand signal by a researcher, but offered no food reward.

The recordings were rated by Wikie’s trainer and the researcher, as well as six independent observers.

Dr Abramson said: ‘You have to be careful about imposing our human concepts on animals. 

Wikie (left), a 16-year-old female orca in a French marine theme park, is able to copy words such as 'hello', 'bye bye' and 'Amy', as well as count to three

Wikie (left), a 16-year-old female orca in a French marine theme park, is able to copy words such as ‘hello’, ‘bye bye’ and ‘Amy’, as well as count to three

Killer whale Wikie (pictured) was able to mimic the duration and pitch of human speech, coming close on three words to a 'high-quality match'

Killer whale Wikie (pictured) was able to mimic the duration and pitch of human speech, coming close on three words to a ‘high-quality match’

‘We will gain more if we try to understand the natural way each species communicates in its own environment than if we try to teach a human language. 

‘Intelligence is a controversial subject and difficult to define. In human intelligence, cultural and social learning aspects are very important. 

‘We can say that killer whales and other cetaceans have a highly developed social intelligence.’

He stressed that once tool use was seen as a uniquely human hallmark of intelligence, but now the focus had shifted to social mental ability.





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