Killer whale Wikie proves orcas can mimic human speech

An ability to learn through copying may explain why whales develop unique dialects.

By Brooks Hays
New research proves orcas can mimic human sounds and words. Photo by dewiki/Wikimedia
New research proves orcas can mimic human sounds and words. Photo by dewiki/Wikimedia

Jan. 31 (UPI) -- An orca, or killer whale, in France can vocalize several English words, suggesting the species is capable of mimicking human speech.

The 14-year-old female, named Wikie, can say "hello," "one, two," "ah ha," "bye bye," and "Amy."


"You cannot pick a word that is very complicated because then I think you are asking too much -- we wanted things that were short but were also distinctive," Josep Call, a professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St. Andrews, told The Guardian.

Call is the co-author of a paper on Wikie's feat, newly published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Wikie first showcased her knack for mimicry by copying the movements of other orcas, as directed by human hand gestures. Later, Wikie copied orca sounds. Eventually, researchers taught her English words.

The orca doesn't get it right all the time. "Hello" is the only word she can say correctly more than 50 percent of the time, but acoustic analysis proved Wikie is indeed making an effort to say the words she's being taught.


Wikie isn't "talking," and she's not the first species to copy human sounds. Dolphins, elephants and parrots have all shown an ability to copy human vocalizations and words.

"Nevertheless, the study... is still important," Call's colleague Luke Rendell wrote in The Conversation. "Not because it means whales can speak English, but that they are capable of one of the core building blocks of language development in humans: vocal learning, the ability to copy novel sounds."

A number of studies have suggested the unique dialects observed in different pods of orcas and other whales can be explained by their ability to learn through mimicry. Now scientists have proof that their hunch was correct.

By better understanding how social learning develops among other species, researchers may be able to better understand how language evolved among early human groups.

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