Orcas don't just wave and whistle. They also have the ability to mimic words like "hello" and "bye bye," as one killer whale has just proven. After discovering orca pods with unique "accents" in their communications—which naturally come in the form of whistles, calls, and echolocation clicks—scientists began to suspect the sounds were learned socially, as with human language, reports the CBC. So an international team set out to discover if an orca could be taught to mimic human words. Wikie, a 14-year-old orca born in captivity at France's Marineland Aquarium, seemed an excellent candidate as she was previously taught to imitate her trainer's actions. In the end, six humans who listened to clips of her imitating "hello," "ah ha," "one two three" and a trainer's name, "Amy," were able to pick the words out, per the Guardian. (Judge for yourself here.)
Wikie is no master: The whale correctly imitated human speech in 14% to 55% of trials, depending on the words, and correctly imitated other sounds—like the blowing of a raspberry, the creaking of a door, and a wolf’s howl, per Live Science—in 19% to 100% of trials. Still, study author Jose Abramson tells the CBC researchers were impressed because orcas vocalize by inflating air sacs in their nose and were thought to produce a more limited range of sounds than dolphins and belugas, which have previously imitated human sounds. "We didn't have any idea that they could be capable of this," says Abramson, whose research is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Study co-author Josep Call calls it "the first evidence that killer whales may be learning sounds by vocal imitation" which "could be the basis of the dialects we observe in the wild."