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.