Beluga imitates human speech

October 23, 2012 • 6:32 am

A new short paper in Current Biology reports a pretty amazing phenomenon: a beluga whale has begun to imitate human speech.

As the authors report (reference below (you can find a free link to the paper on this page) captive beluga whales (also called white whales; Delphinapterus leucas) have been reported to imitate sounds, with one apparently able to repeat its name, but there hasn’t been published scientific documentation with sonograms.

Ridgway et al. give the circumstances:

After seven years in our care (see the Supplemental Information), a white whale called NOC began, spontaneously, to make unusual sounds. We interpreted the whale’s vocalizations as an attempt to mimic humans. Whale vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range for our understanding. These ‘conversations’ were heard several times before the whale was identified as the source. The whale lived among a group of dolphins and socialized with two female white whales. The whale was exposed to speech not only from humans  at the surface — it was present at times when divers used surface-to-diver communication equipment (see Supplemental Information). The whale was recognized as the source of the speech-like sounds when a diver surfaced outside this whale’s enclosure and asked “Who told me to get out?” Our observations led us to conclude the “out” which was repeated several times came from NOC.

The amplitude and rhythm of the whale’s sounds were very smilar to that of human speech; here’s a sonogram from the paper showing the resemblance.

From Ridgway et al, Fig. 1: Figure 1. Acoustic record of human speech and whale speech-like sound. (A) Human speech from a tape recorded voice track analyzed with Audacity (an on-line open source sound editor). (B) Whale speech-like sounds recorded with a B&K microphone in air and displayed in water-fall mode on the SD 350 digital spectrum Analyzer (Scientific Atlanta).

Of course you’ll want to hear what the whale sounded like. New Scientist has a recording of the whale’s sounds; just click “Listen to it here” in the first paragraph. It’s pretty amazing.

The whale’s sounds were produced in a way different from normal whale sounds.

Unlike echolocation clicks, ordinary pulse bursts, and whistle-like sounds, the production of speech-like sounds involved marked inflation of first one and then the other vestibular sac. This was readily observed on the surface of the whale’s head and may have been necessary to emphasize lower frequencies of the speech-like sounds. In usual white whale sounds, such extreme inflation of these sacs is not evident.

Sadly, the speech-like sounds disappeared after four years when the beluga had matured.

The authors aren’t claiming that belugas are great mimics (listen to the sounds yourself), but simply that they were attempting to mimic human speech, something that isn’t surprising in such smart animals.

I recently posted about how unethical it is to keep these animals in captivity, and this is just another example of how smart they are. If they really could talk, they’d say something like this:

h/t: Matthew Cobb


Ridgway, S., D. Carder, M. Jeffries, and M. Todd. 2012. Spontaneous speech mimicry of human sounds. Current Biology. Current Biology Vol 22 No 20,  DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.044

25 thoughts on “Beluga imitates human speech

  1. this is just another example of how smart they are

    Imitation of human speech is not really a good indication of intelligence — numerous birds can also mimic human speech sounds. I think it is easy to over-attribute intelligence when an organism sounds or looks like us.

      1. Right, but we should judge them to be intelligent because of that behaviour, and not because they can mimic human phonemes. There is nothing inherently intelligent in mimickry — a huge list of organisms mimic things other than human sounds.

        And to circle back to the original post on belugas, if human speech mimicry and problem solving are hallmarks of intelligence, and intelligent creatures shouldn’t be held in captivity, then certainly a larger concern than belugas are all the parrots that are sold in pet stores, no?

        1. I’m not in favour of any truly wild animals being sold in pet shops or held in captivity (except in order help preserve a species), but if you are to suggest that all such species should be liberated, thereby hangs a problem, in that a lot, but by no means all, of e.g., parrots are captive bred, so it is questionable as to whether they would survive in the wild.

          There is also the risk that releasing captive animals would have a negative effect on the environment into which they are released. A few years ago, the Animal Liberation Front in the UK released all of the mink from the last remaining UK fur farm, in Norfolk. The effect on the local environment was devastating, with many small mammal and bird species being either wiped out or severely reduced in numbers. And the mink are still multiplying and spreading.

          1. Just imagine the result of “liberating” every single cow, pig, and chicken.

            First, there’d be an environmental catastrophe as they destroyed any and all environments they were released into; next, they’d all die from starvation and / or predation (and create another environmental catastrophe with their corpses); and, last, the humans who depend on them for food would release yet another environmental catastrophe with the resulting hunger, chaos, and warfare.

            For better or worse, domesticated animals and humans are interdependent, and any attempts to end that interdependency will take as much selective breeding, etc. to reverse as it did to create in the first place.

            Animals that haven’t been domesticated, though…well, unless we’re prepared to do to them what we’ve done to those we’ve domesticated, it’s pretty clear that the responsible action lies with minimal interference (including not destroying habitats).



            P.S. Plants have been domesticated every bit as much as animals, and all the same considerations apply. b&

            1. I rather think that the ‘domesticated’ (or should that be ‘industrialised’?) plant cat is out of the proverbial bag, with GM genes from a number of crop species including rape and corn showing up where they shouldn’t be.

              Of course, that’s OK and totally safe, just as long as Monsanto, et al, can keep on selling more seed and more chemicals.

              1. The “domesticated plant cat”?

                Good God. This genetic tinkering has gone a lot further than I’d thought.

              2. Oh, it’s all across the family tree of life. Earthworms and honeybees are invasive to the New World, often with devastating results. And Zebra Mussels?

                No species is quite so invasive, though, as a certain relatively-hairless great ape….


  2. Maybe the whales are mocking their captors. They could be saying, “Listen to their limited vocalization range.”

    1. More like “this is what that they said: ‘ngwhar ngwah blah blah blah’ – at their age you’d think they’d at least have learned to speak.”

      1. Yes. it does sound like a parody. What you’d expect from something that looks like a gigantic rubber bath toy and squirts mouthfuls of cold water at humans when they aren’t looking.

  3. Cool.

    On the other hand, I think as the diver I would have been worried if the whales were telling me to “get out”.

  4. Stonyground
    My first thought was that birds can imitate human speech but I suspect that this might be something different. Presumably time and more research will tell. Birds in my village copy burglar alarms. I also recall a TV documentary that showed woodland birds that could mimic the sound of a diesel engine and a chain saw.

    1. I once spent a four-hour flight in the same cabin as a lorikeet which could do a spot-on imitation of a car alarm. Which it did for the duration of the flight.

  5. I have no idea what that plot of human sounds vs whale sounds is meant to establish; it gives me the impression that people are imagining things. For some reason I can’t listen to the New Scientist clip. It’s a pity the original article is not free; now I’m curious as to whether or not the authors will make sense.

  6. The entire article is actually accessible for free from the same link you provide! Just click “PDF” in the panel on the upper right.

Leave a Reply to teacupoftheapocalypse Cancel reply