They have the second-biggest brains among all ocean mammals and can communicate with one another many miles apart.
Now it turns out killer whales can be taught to mimic human speech.
Wikie, a 16-year-old female orca has learnt to say English words such as ‘hello’ and ‘bye bye’ and ‘Amy’ – her trainer’s name. She can even count to three.
The sounds emerge through her blowhole as parrot-like squawks, shrill whistles or raspberries, but most are easily understandable as words.
The killer whale was able to mimic the duration and pitch of human speech, coming close on three words to a ‘high-quality match’.
Although researchers did not set out to test Wikie’s communication skills, the scientist who led the study believes basic ‘conversations’ with her may one day be possible.
Dr Jose Abramson, from Complutense de Madrid University in Spain, said: ‘Yes, it’s conceivable…if you have labels, descriptions of what things are. It has been done before with a famous grey parrot and dolphins using American sign language – sentences like “bring me this object” or “put this object above or below the other”.’
The discovery, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, puts killer whales on a footing with humans. While birds find it easy to mimic others, the skill is exceedingly rare in mammals, and no primates apart from people are able to do it.
The first sign that orcas can copy other animals came in studies which captured them barking like sea lions.
However Wikie – who lives in a French marine theme park in Antibes – is believed to be the first member of her species to mimic human speech. The orca, which had taken part in previous behavioural studies, was taught to copy novel sounds and words from both another killer whale, her own three-year-old calf, Moana, and by humans.
The human sounds she copied included a laugh and the words ‘hello’, ‘bye bye’, ‘Amy’ and ‘one two three’. She was also trained to mimic noises such as a creaking door and a raspberry.
She ‘spoke’ while partially immersed in water with her blowhole exposed to the air.
In each trial, the killer whale was given a ‘do that’ hand signal by a researcher but offered no food reward. The recordings were rated by Wikie’s trainer and the researcher, as well as six independent observers.
Dr Abramson said: ‘You have to be careful about imposing our human concepts on animals. We will gain more if we try to understand the natural way each species communicates in its own environment than if we try to teach a human language.’
– Daily Mail