October 22nd, 2012 by James Ayre
It’s been shown for the first time, via acoustic analysis, that some whales can imitate human speech. It’s a large surprise for researchers because the way that whales usually create vocal sounds is entirely different from the way humans do.
“Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds,” said Sam Ridgway of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. “Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact.”
A Cell Press news release notes:
“It all started in 1984 when Ridgway and others began to notice some unusual sounds in the vicinity of the whale and dolphin enclosure. As they describe it, it sounded as though two people were conversing in the distance, just out of range of their understanding.”
Those sounds were followed back to one particular white whale. Only a short while later, one of the researchers who had been diving surfaced and asked: “Who told me to get out?”
The whale in question had been named NOC. He had been around dolphins, other whales, and humans, for quite awhile by that time.
There had previously been other anecdotal reports of whales imitating human speech, so the researchers decided to try to gather some evidence. After recording the sounds that the whale made, it was revealed that it had a rhythm very similar to human speech and was several octaves deeper than the sounds that whales usually make, closer to the range that humans speak in.
“Whale voice prints were similar to human voice and unlike the whale’s usual sounds,” Ridgway said. “The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale.”
The researchers say that it’s remarkable because of how differently whales typically make sounds. “Whales make sounds via their nasal tract, not in the larynx as humans do. To make those human-like sounds, NOC had to vary the pressure in his nasal tract while making other muscular adjustments and inflating the vestibular sac in his blowhole, the researchers found. In other words, it wasn’t easy.”
The whale in question died about five years ago, after spending 30 years at the National Marine Mammal Foundation. A recent study using the dating of dentin has shown that white whales in the wild can live up to 80 years.
An audio recording is here.
The research was just published October 23rd in the journal Current Biology.
Source: Cell Press
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