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A 14-year-old killer whale in France has successfully imitated human speech

(File photo) Young children get a close-up view of an Orca killer whale during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, California March 19, 2014. (REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo)
(File photo) Young children get a close-up view of an Orca killer whale during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, California March 19, 2014. (REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo)

A 14-year-old killer whale in France has successfully imitated human speech, according to researchers who got her to squeak out convincing versions of words, including “hello,” “Amy” and “bye, bye.”

The vocal feats put Wikie, an orca at the Marineland aquarium in the city of Antibes, in rare company. While birds such as parrots and mynas are known to be able to mimic human sounds, only a few mammals, including a zoo elephant in South Korea, have been documented doing so.

Wikie had already been trained during previous studies to respond to “copy” or “do that!” command, and this time the researchers used it after introducing her to sounds she’d never heard or uttered before — some orca, some human.

She did well, making “recognizable copies” of all the sounds within 17 tries, the researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The orca got two of the human sounds right on her very first attempt: “hello” and “one, two, three.”

The international team of researchers say Wikie’s skills may shed light on how each wild killer whale pod fashions its own distinct dialect — a tribal language of sorts that scientists suspect is socially learned. Orcas had previously been observed mimicking sea lion and dolphin sounds, but the authors say this study is the first to test their ability in a controlled experiment. And Wikie’s performance, they say, shows that vocal imitation may be one secret to killer whale communication.

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