Whales Imitate Human Speech, say researchers

Whale Hello: Orcas Can Imitate Human Speech, Researchers Find


Say hello to an orca, and it might say hello back — or at least try to.

An international team of researchers, working with two orcas at an aquarium in France, have found that the whales were able to replicate the sounds of human speech, including words like “hello” and “bye-bye,” as well as series of sounds like “ah ah.”

The orcas could also imitate a human blowing a raspberry, or copy the sound of another orca, scientists say.

You can hear the result in a video published by The Guardian, pulling from the scientists’ data.

The research — published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B — has implications beyond aquarium settings. It suggests that whales could be learning vocal patterns from each other in the wild.

That fits the observations of researchers in the field, who found groups of whales with “vocal dialects that are often referred to as traditions or cultures,” the researchers write.


“Our results lend support to the hypothesis that the vocal variants observed in natural populations of this species can be socially learned by imitation.”

-Dr. José Zamorano-Abramson, Researcher and lead author of the study


Luke Rendell, an orca researcher not involved in this study, noted to the Times that it was “somewhat ironic” that research on captive killer whales reinforces a key argument against keeping the animals in aquariums: namely, that they appear to have cultural communities in the wild. Rendell praised the work overall, noting that it involved orcas that were born in captivity, not captured.

Read more about the study here.

See the scientific journal article here.


Journal reference:  Zamorano-Abramson, J., et al. Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca).  Proceedings of the Royal Society B, January, 2018.