Whales can talk? Well, not exactly, but a new research paper has found that Beluga whales can mimic the sound of the human voice.
The whales can’t actually say words, at least none that we can understand, but they have fooled researchers before. According to Discovery News, one researcher swears that he heard someone tell him to “get out” of the pool only to find out later that it was a white whale named NOC.
But NOC isn’t the only whale who can mimic the human voice. Sam Ridgway of the National Marine Mammal Foundation and lead author of the study, said that the first major instance occurred in 1979 in Vancouver when a whale uttered what sounded like its name, “Lagosi.”
“A major instance occurred at Vancouver Aquarium in 1979. In that case, people thought the whale uttered his name (“Lagosi”) and other sounds that were like garbled German or Russian. Our whale (NOC) was the second example, however, ours was the first solid demonstration using acoustic analysis including ‘voice print’ simultaneously with human speech.”
According to National Geographic, NOC’s unique vocal abilities were discovered in 1984 when researchers heard several people talking around NOC’s tank. Upon closer inspection, the researchers noticed that the noise was actually coming from NOC.
“You could hear there was a conversation, but you couldn’t make out what they were saying.”
Ridgway started working on a research paper about NOC’s vocal abilities in the 1980s but couldn’t find funding for the project. Eventually, Ridgway moved on to other projects but was recently encouraged to revisit the data. The new study, which appears in the latest issue of Current Biology, says that NOC may have started to mimic the human voice after hearing divers talk via underwater communication equipment.
“The whale often heard divers talking over underwater communication equipment. I think that vocal animals like feedback. Perhaps this figured in his motivation.”
According to the paper, making the noise wasn’t an easy task for NOC. Ridgway writes that the whale had to change the pressure in his nasal tract and inflate the vestibular sac in his blowhole in order to lower its voice into the human range. The researchers said that you could actually see NOC’s head expand when he was “speaking.” NOC was recorded “speaking” in the same frequencies of human speech which is several octaves lower than his usual sounds.
Strangely, NOC only attempted to mimic the human voice while he was a young whale. According to the researchers he stopped making the noise at about 4-years-old.
Ridgway isn’t sure why the whale decided to stop making the noise but he has a few ideas. For one, it may have just been a childish game for NOC just like human kids try to mimic their parents. Ridgway also notes that researchers started to train NOC with vocal responses. Mimicking the human voice may have seemed more like a chore for NOC instead of a fun game.
Ridgway said: “We trained the whale to interact with us acoustically for hearing test and for reaction time determinations, among other things. For this new work, the whale was responding to us vocally. These responses may have limited his interest in the human speech-like sounds.”
The late William Schevill, who was the first to document a white whale mimicking the human voice, described the sound by saying: “Occasionally the calls would suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance.”
Here’s a recording of NOC “speaking” like a human.
What do you hear? A human voice? A whale? A crowd of children speaking in the distance? An adult talking on the phone in an old Charlie Brown cartoon?
NOC may have lost his interest in making human noises but Ridgway is hoping to find another whale ready to learn how to talk. The researcher doubts that whales will ever be able to speak words but said that they may be able to be taught sounds.
“They readily learn … I think they could be taught many sounds. I do not know that teaching speech would be scientifically worthwhile … The human voice appears to be very difficult for a cetacean to mimic.”
Marine biologist Peter Tyack, of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said that whales aren’t the only marine animals to imitate humans. Tyack said that a harbor seal raised by humans in Maine during the 1970s was able to mimic human words. According to Tyack, the seal even had a Main accent.
“(Some animals can produce) completely new sounds in its repertoire just by listening. You could even hear that (Hoover the seal) had a Maine accent.”
Whales, dolphins, and other marine life are known to playfully mimic each other, as evidence by the clip below.