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.
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