Arquivo mensal: fevereiro 2018

Distant tropical storms have ripple effects on weather close to home (Science Daily)

Researchers describe a breakthrough in making accurate predictions of weather weeks ahead

February 20, 2018
Colorado State University
Researchers report a breakthrough in making accurate predictions of weather weeks ahead. They’ve created an empirical model fed by careful analysis of 37 years of historical weather data. Their model centers on the relationship between two well-known global weather patterns: the Madden-Julian Oscillation and the quasi-biennial oscillation.

Storm clouds (stock image). Credit: © mdesigner125 / Fotolia

The famously intense tropical rainstorms along Earth’s equator occur thousands of miles from the United States. But atmospheric scientists know that, like ripples in a pond, tropical weather creates powerful waves in the atmosphere that travel all the way to North America and have major impacts on weather in the U.S.

These far-flung, interconnected weather processes are crucial to making better, longer-term weather predictions than are currently possible. Colorado State University atmospheric scientists, led by professors Libby Barnes and Eric Maloney, are hard at work to address these longer-term forecasting challenges.

In a new paper in npj Climate and Atmospheric Science, the CSU researchers describe a breakthrough in making accurate predictions of weather weeks ahead. They’ve created an empirical model fed by careful analysis of 37 years of historical weather data. Their model centers on the relationship between two well-known global weather patterns: the Madden-Julian Oscillation and the quasi-biennial oscillation.

According to the study, led by former graduate researcher Bryan Mundhenk, the model, using both these phenomena, allows skillful prediction of the behavior of major rain storms, called atmospheric rivers, three and up to five weeks in advance.

“It’s impressive, considering that current state-of-the-art numerical weather models, such as NOA’s Global Forecast System, or the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts’ operational model, are only skillful up to one to two weeks in advance,” says paper co-author Cory Baggett, a postdoctoral researcher in the Barnes and Maloney labs.

The researchers’ chief aim is improving forecast capabilities within the tricky no-man’s land of “subseasonal to seasonal” timescales: roughly three weeks to three months out. Predictive capabilities that far in advance could save lives and livelihoods, from sounding alarms for floods and mudslides to preparing farmers for long dry seasons. Barnes also leads a federal NOAA task force for improving subseasonal to seasonal forecasting, with the goal of sharpening predictions for hurricanes, heat waves, the polar vortex and more.

Atmospheric rivers aren’t actual waterways, but”rivers in the sky,” according to researchers. They’re intense plumes of water vapor that cause extreme precipitation, plumes so large they resemble rivers in satellite pictures. These “rivers” are responsible for more than half the rainfall in the western U.S.

The Madden-Julian Oscillation is a cluster of rainstorms that moves east along the Equator over 30 to 60 days. The location of the oscillation determines where atmospheric waves will form, and their eventual impact on say, California. In previous work, the researchers have uncovered key stages of the Madden-Julian Oscillation that affect far-off weather, including atmospheric rivers.

Sitting above the Madden-Julian Oscillation is a very predictable wind pattern called the quasi-biennial oscillation. Over two- to three-year periods, the winds shift east, west and back east again, and almost never deviate. This pattern directly affects the Madden-Julian Oscillation, and thus indirectly affects weather all the way to California and beyond.

The CSU researchers created a model that can accurately predict atmospheric river activity in the western U.S. three weeks from now. Its inputs include the current state of the Madden-Julian Oscillation and the quasi-biennial oscillation. Using information on how atmospheric rivers have previously behaved in response to these oscillations, they found that the quasi-biennial oscillation matters — a lot.

Armed with their model, the researchers want to identify and understand deficiencies in state-of-the-art numerical weather models that prevent them from predicting weather on these subseasonal time scales.

“It would be worthwhile to develop a good understanding of the physical relationship between the Madden-Julian Oscillation and the quasi-biennial oscillation, and see what can be done to improve models’ simulation of this relationship,” Mundhenk said.

Another logical extension of their work would be to test how well their model can forecast actual rainfall and wind or other severe weather, such as tornadoes and hail.

Journal Reference:

  1. Bryan D. Mundhenk, Elizabeth A. Barnes, Eric D. Maloney, Cory F. Baggett. Skillful empirical subseasonal prediction of landfalling atmospheric river activity using the Madden–Julian oscillation and quasi-biennial oscillation. npj Climate and Atmospheric Science, 2018; 1 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41612-017-0008-2

How can I become a fossil? (BBC Future)

How to be fossilized (Credit: Getty) Less than one-10th of 1% of all species that have ever lived became fossils. But from skipping a coffin to avoiding Iran, there are ways to up your chances of lasting forever.

By John Pickrell

15 February 2018

Every fossil is a small miracle. As author Bill Bryson notes in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, only an estimated one bone in a billion gets fossilised. By that calculation the entire fossil legacy of the 320-odd million people alive in the US today will equate to approximately 60 bones – or a little over a quarter of a human skeleton.

But that’s just the chance of getting fossilised in the first place. Assuming this handful of bones could be buried anywhere in the US’s 9.8 million sq km (3.8 million square miles), then the chances of anyone finding these bones in the future are almost non-existent.

Fossilisation is so unlikely that scientists estimate that less one-tenth of 1% of all the animal species that have ever lived have become fossils. Far fewer of them have been found.

As humans, we have a couple of things going for us: we have hard skeletons and we’re relatively large. So we’re much more likely to make it than a jellyfish or a worm. There are things, however, you can do to increase your chances of success.

Taphonomy is the study of burial, decay and preservation – the entire process of what happens after an organism dies and eventually becomes a fossil. To answer the question of how to become a fossil, BBC Future spoke with some of the world’s top taphonomists.

1. Get buried, and quickly

“It’s really a question of maintaining a good condition of the body after death – long enough to be buried under sediment and then altered physically and chemically deep underground to become a fossil,” says Sue Beardmore, a taphonomist and collections assistant at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

“To be preserved for millions of years, you must also survive the first hours, days, seasons, decades, centuries, and thousands of years,” adds Susan Kidwell, a professor at the University of Chicago. “That is, you must survive the initial transition from the ‘taphonomically active zone’… to a zone of permanent burial, where your remains are unlikely to be exhumed.”

There are almost endless ways that fossilisation can fail. Many of these happen at, or down to 20-50cm below, the soil or seafloor surface. You don’t want your remains to be eaten and scattered by scavengers, for example, or exposed to the elements for too long. And you don’t want them to be bored into or shifted around by burrowing animals.

The sand and mud deposits of Canada’s Badlands quickly buried bones The sand and mud deposits of Canada’s Badlands quickly buried bones, making the area one of the world’s richest hunting grounds for dinosaur fossils (Credit: Getty)

When it comes to rapid burial, sometimes natural disasters can help – such as floods that dump huge amounts of sediment or volcanic eruptions that smother things in mud and ash. “One theory for the occurrence of dinosaur bone beds is firstly drought conditions, that killed the dinosaurs, followed by floods that moved the sediments to bury them,” Beardmore says.

Of course, the fact that human bodies are typically buried six feet under (unless cremated) gives you another leg up here. But that isn’t enough on its own.

2. Find some water

Obviously the first step is dying, but you can’t die just anywhere. Picking the perfect environment is key. Water is one important thing to consider. If you die in a dry environment, once you’ve been picked over by scavengers, your bones will probably weather away at the surface. Instead, most experts agree you need to get swiftly smothered in sand, mud and sediments – and the best places for that are lakes, floodplains and rivers, or the bottom of the sea.

“The palaeoenvironments that we often see the best fossils come out of are lake and river systems,” says Caitlin Syme, a taphonomist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. The important thing is the rate at which fresh sediments are burying things. She recommends rivers flowing from mountains which cause erosion and therefore carry a lot of sediment. Another option is a coastal delta or floodplain, where river sediment is rapidly dumped as the water heads out to sea.

Ideally, you also want an ‘anoxic’ environment: one very low in oxygen, where animals and microorganisms that would digest and disturb your remains can’t survive.

Kidwell recommends avoiding about 50cm below the seafloor, “the maximum burrowing depth of shrimp, crabs and worms that might irrigate the sediments with oxygenated water”, which would promote decomposition and stir up the body.

“You want to end up quickly after death in a spot that is relatively low elevation, so that it is a sink for sediment, and preferably with standing water – a pond, lake, estuary or ocean – so that anoxic conditions might develop,” she says.

A 150 million year old archaeopteryx (Credit: Getty)

Choose the right conditions and you, too, could be preserved for as long as this 150 million year old archaeopteryx (Credit: Getty)

In rare cases, fossils created in these kind of still, anoxic conditions preserve their soft tissues like skin, feathers and internal organs. Examples include the many exquisite feathered dinosaurs from China or the Bavarian quarries that produced the fossils of the earliest bird, archaeopteryx.

Once your fossil gets below the biologically active surface layer, then it’s stable and will continue to be buried more deeply as further sediments accumulate, Kidwell says. “The risk for destruction then shifts to a completely different geological timescale, namely that of tectonism.”

The question, then, is how long before the sediments encasing the corpse are turned to more permanent stone… and are lifted by geological activity to a height where erosion can expose the remains.

3. Skip the coffin

Now we come to the thorny technicality of what a fossil actually is – and what kind of fossil you want your body to be.

Very generally, anything up to around 50,000 years old is what’s known as a ‘subfossil’. These are largely still made up of the original tissues of the organism. Extinct Pleistocene megafauna found in caves – such as giant ground sloths in South America, cave bears in Europe, and marsupial lions in Australia – are good examples.

However, if you want your remains to become a fossil that lasts for millions of years, then you really want minerals to seep through your bones and replace them with harder substances. This process, known as ‘permineralisation’, is what typically creates a fully-fledged fossil. It can take millions of years.

As a result, you might skip the coffin. Bones permineralise most rapidly when mineral-rich water can flow through them, imbuing them with things like iron and calcium. A coffin might keep the skeleton nicely together, but it would interfere with this process.

There is a way a coffin might work, though. Mike Archer, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales, suggests burial in a concrete coffin filled with sand and with hundreds of 5mm holes drilled into the sides. This then needs to be buried deep enough that groundwater can pass through.

“If you want to be a classic bony fossil, a bit like something from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada, then something like a [coarse] river sand would be pretty good,” says Syme. “All the soft tissues would be destroyed and you’d be left with this beautifully articulated skeleton.”

In terms of the minerals, calcium ions which can precipitate into calcite, a form of calcium carbonate, are especially good. “These can start to cement or cover the body which will protect it in the long run, because given time it will most likely be buried at a greater depth,” Syme says.

Deliberately seeding your corpse with the appropriate minerals, such as calcite or gypsum, might be a way to accelerate this. Encouraging the growth of tough iron-rich minerals would also be sensible as they withstand weathering well in the long run.

If you want to personalise your fossil further, add colour with some copper

If you want to personalise your fossil further, add colour with some copper (Credit: Alamy)

Silicates, from the sand, are also a nice durable mineral to have incorporated. Archer even suggests getting buried with copper strips and nickel pellets if you fancy fossilised bones and teeth with a nice blue-green colour to them.

4. Avoid the edges of tectonic plates

If you made it through the first few hundred thousand years and minerals begin to replace your bones, congratulations! You’ve successfully become a fossil. As sediments build up on top and you get pushed deeper into Earth’s crust, the heat and pressure will aid the process further.

But it’s not a done deal yet. Your fossil might still shift to such depths that it could be melted by the Earth’s heat and pressure.

Don’t want that to happen? Steer clear of the edges of tectonic plates, where the crust is going to eventually get sucked under the surface. One such subduction zone is Iran, where the Eurasian Plate is rising over the Iranian Plate.

5. Get discovered

Now you need to think about the potential for rediscovery.

If you want somebody to chance upon your carefully preserved fossil one day, you need to plan for burial in a spot that currently is low enough to accumulate the necessary sediments for deep burial – but that will eventually be pushed up again. In other words, you need a place with uplift where weathering and erosion will eventually scour off the surface layers, exposing you.

The Dead Sea may be a good place to preserve your fossil

Good for more than floating, the Dead Sea may be a good place to preserve your fossil (Credit: Getty)

One good spot might be the Mediterranean Sea, Syme says; it’s getting shallower as Africa is pushed towards Europe. Other small, inland seas that will fill with sediment are good bets, too.

“Perhaps the Dead Sea,” she says. “The high salt would preserve and pickle you.”

6. Or go rogue

We’ve covered the standard method for hard, durable fossils with bone largely replaced by rock. But there are some oddball methods to consider, too.

Top of the list is amber. There are astounding fossils perfectly preserved in this gemstone made of tree resin – such as recent finds of birds, lizards and even a feathered dinosaur tail in Myanmar. “If you can find a large enough amount of tree sap and get covered in amber, that’s going to be the best way to preserve your soft tissues as well as your bones,” Syme says. “But it’s obviously pretty difficult for such a large animal.”

Can’t find enough amber? The next option is tar pits of the kind that have preserved sabre-toothed cats and mammoths at La Brea in Los Angeles. Although here you would mostly likely end up disarticulated, your bones jumbled in with other animals. There’s also freezing on a mountain or in a glacier, like Ötzi the iceman, found in the European Alps in 1991.

Where Ötzi the iceman met his fate

Where Ötzi the iceman met his fate may not seem very comfortable, but it proved key for preserving his remains (Credit: Alamy)

Another route might be natural mummification, with your body left to dry in a cave system. “There are a lot of cave system remains that get covered with calcium from groundwater, which also forms stalactites and stalagmites,” Syme says. “People like caving and so if the cave systems still exist in the future, they might happen upon you.”

One final method to preserve your corpse almost indefinitely, though not in the form of a fossil, would be launching you into space – or leaving you on the surface of a geologically inert celestial body with no atmosphere, such as the Moon.

“The vacuum of space would be very good if you want your body to remain perpetually non-decaying,” Syme says. She adds that you could attach a radio beacon if you want to get found again in the distant future.

7. Leave a little something extra

Assuming you are found millions of years hence, what else might be preserved alongside you?

Plastics (fidget spinners, anyone?), other oil-derived products that don’t biodegrade and inert metals, like alloys, gold and rare metals of the kind found in mobile phones, all might last as long.

Will mobile phones be one of the artefacts we leave for future generations?

Will mobile phones be one of the artefacts we leave for generations far in the future? (Credit: Getty)

Glass is durable too, and can withstand high temperatures and pressures. You can imagine finding the “outlines or shape of smartphones,” Syme says. Archer notes that the durability of glass means you could chisel ‘ENJOY!’ on a small sheet of glass in a concrete coffin with your body and it would be there to find with your fossil.

“To be 100% sure I would use diamond,” Syme adds – it’s immensely stable. Using a laser, you could etch a letter explaining the lengths you went to to get fossilised.

If you also want to pre-plan your archaeological context, Syme believes bitumen highways and the foundations of skyscrapers are contenders. “We’ve dug down deep into the ground to build these things. You’ll be able to see… the layouts of cities still there,” she says.

Remember, the words you write will fade and your deeds will be forgotten. But a fossil? That, perhaps, could last forever.

María Apaza: la mujer de 91 años que dialoga con los Apus (El Comércio Perú)

La nación Q’ero, en el alto Cusco, es considerada el último ayllu de los incas y su autoridad espiritual máxima es una mujer de 91 años llamada María Apaza, la interlocutora de los Apus

Maria Apaza

María Apaza tiene 91 años y es la única mujer altomisayoc (sacerdotisa espiritual) de la nación Q’ero. El grupo Rimayni la trajo a Lima para que celebre ceremonias y retiros de iniciación. (Foto: Hugo Pérez)

Ana Núñez

Hasta 300 millones de voltios podrían haber pasado por el cuerpo de María Apaza aquella tarde de 1943, lo suficiente para encender una bombilla de cien vatios durante todo un año. El rayo cayó sobre la joven de 16 años mientras pastaba a sus animales en las alturas de Paucartambo (Cusco). Debía haber muerto ese día María, pero estaba destinada a ser una altomisayoc (máxima sacerdotisa de la nación Q’ero) y sobrevivir al doloroso beso del rayo era solo una señal de ese sino.

De hecho, pocos días después de que recibió la fuerte descarga, un pampamisayoc (sacerdote sanador de los Q’eros) lo pudo leer en la hoja de coca: María había sido elegida entre los hombres y las mujeres de las comunidades herederas de la sangre y tradiciones de los incas para ser la sacerdotisa sagrada que puede tener contacto directo con los Apus, para soportar el poder de fuerzas que ningún otro ser humano podría soportar, y para limpiar, sanar y recargar energías con sus cuyas (piedras).

Recorrer ese camino no fue fácil. Antes de poder soportar la fuerza de los Apus, María pasó por un proceso en el que diferentes pampamisayoc realizaron hasta doce ceremonias de Karpay (rito de iniciación). Según su tradición, si el rayo te elige como altomisayoc, primero te mata, luego te desarticula y finalmente te resucita, así es que esas ceremonias intentaban integrar sus ‘partes disgregadas’.

María recién pudo soportar la fuerza de los Apus el día que fue a la fiesta del Quyllurit’i, en las faldas del nevado del Ausangate (Cusco).

La magia de los mitos andinos ha sido parte de la vida de María Apaza. En la comunidad de Kiko, donde nació, es común escuchar a los pobladores narrar historias en quechua sobre el día que “Mamá María se fue volando con el cóndor” o la vez que “se la llevó el viento”. En su familia, dicen incluso que hubo ocasiones en las que la altomisayoc desapareció y la encontraron varias semanas después durmiendo bajo un árbol, lo que era interpretado como que ella se había ido a otro plano en tiempo y espacio.

Cuentan que cuando los Apus se comunican con María hay muestras tangibles de ese contacto con la naturaleza: vuela el cóndor, ruge el puma, el colibrí se queda estático y habla el viento.

Esta semana María Apaza llegó a Lima junto a su hijo Alejandro, un pampamisayoc, y otros miembros de tres generaciones de su familia que son parte del linaje de los Apaza. En cumplimiento de sus profecías, los Q’ero han abierto su cultura, ofreciendo su sabiduría y espiritualidad al mundo.

María solo habla quechua, pero sabe reconocer los corazones. La altomisayoc mide menos de metro y medio, tiene los ojos dulces pero profundos y si le pides que cante, soltará una de esas melodías andinas que son dulces y tristes. Si la miras de lejos, puedes pensar que se trata solo de una abuelita andina. Pero si te fijas bien, te darás cuenta de que tiene las piernas tan jóvenes como las tuyas. Con esas piernas, María aún sube a las montañas, se enfrenta cara a cara con los Apus y hasta pide a la Pachamama que nos cuide.

Lea la nota completa mañana en la edición impresa de la revista Somos.

Interdisciplinary approach yields new insights into human evolution (Vanderbilt University)


Vanderbilt biologist Nicole Creanza Nicole Creanza takes interdisciplinary approach to human evolution as guest editor of Royal Society journal

The evolution of human biology should be considered part and parcel with the evolution of humanity itself, proposes Nicole Creanza, assistant professor of biological sciences. She is the guest editor of a new themed issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the oldest scientific journal in the world, that focuses on an interdisciplinary approach to human evolution.

Stanford professor Marc Feldman and Stanford postdoc Oren Kolodny collaborated with Creanza on the special issue.

“Within the blink of an eye on a geological timescale, humans advanced from using basic stone tools to examining the rocks on Mars; however, our exact evolutionary path and the relative importance of genetic and cultural evolution remain a mystery,” said Creanza, who specializes in the application of computational and theoretical approaches to human and cultural evolution, particularly language development. “Our cultural capacities-to create new ideas, to communicate and learn from one another, and to form vast social networks-together make us uniquely human, but the origins, the mechanisms, and the evolutionary impact of these capacities remain unknown.”

The special issue brings together researchers in biology, anthropology, archaeology, economics, psychology, computer science and more to explore the cultural forces affecting human evolution from a wider perspective than is usually taken.

“Researchers have begun to recognize that understanding non-genetic inheritance, including culture, ecology, the microbiome, and regulation of gene expression, is fundamental to fully comprehending evolution,” said Creanza. “It is essential to understand the dynamics of cultural inheritance at different temporal and spatial scales, to uncover the underlying mechanisms that drive these dynamics, and to shed light on their implications for our current theory of evolution as well as for our interpretation and predictions regarding human behavior.”

In addition to an essay discussing the need for an interdisciplinary approach to human evolution, Creanza included an interdisciplinary study of her own, examining the origins of English’s contribution to Sranan, a creole that emerged in Suriname following an influx of indentured servants from England in the 17th century.

Creanza, along with linguists Andre Sherriah and Hubert Devonish of the University of the West Indes and psychologist Ewart Thomas from Stanford, sought to determine the geographic origins of the English speakers whose regional dialects formed the backbone of Sranan. Their work combined linguistic, historical and genetic approaches to determine that the English speakers who influenced Sranan the most originated largely from two counties on opposite sides of southern England: Bristol, in the west, and Essex, in the east.

“Thus, analyzing the features of modern-day languages might give us new information about events in human history that left few other traces,” Creanza said.

So killer whales can talk. Welcome to a brave new world of cross-species chat (The Guardian)


Wikie the orca is more mimic than raconteur, but the potential is awesome. Imagine dolphins tackling politicians on pollution

A killer whale.

Abridge in cultures has occurred. A cognitive chasm between intelligent creatures has been crossed. Of all the spectacular times for you to be alive, you happen to have been born in an age when killer whales started talking to the damn dirty apes who were willing to listen. Though this sounds like some sort of sci-fi dream/nightmare, I am here to assure you that this is real. Remain calm, but stay vigilant around all marine mammals at this time. We may be in for a rocky time, as you shall discover.

Let us begin by examining the facts. First, it’s true. As you may have heard by now, a captive killer whale called Wikie, housed at Marineland in Antibes, France, is uttering noises that mimic the human sounds “Hello” and “Bye-bye” as well as “One, two, three” plus, apparently, the haunting word “Amy” – the name of its trainer. Predictably, within hours of the release of the scientific paper, Wikie has become something of an online celebrity.

This week, after the news broke about Wikie’s great feat, a number of vocal animal welfare charities were calling for her release from captivity. This troubled me a little. Really? I thought. Is that really a good idea?

Killer whales (like all dolphins) are adept at horizontal learning, after all. They copy one another. They have sounds for objects, possibly names. They have dialects. They transmit behaviours. In other words, they have culture like we do. Might the once captive Wikie somehow spoil their untamed wildness with her newly learned human vernacular? What if this captive dolphin, somehow released into the wild with a human greeting (“Hello!”) should corrupt the wild dolphins it comes across? What then? I dread to think, but the idea is entertaining to consider so let us do just that.

Let us imagine pods of wild dolphins screaming “Goodbye” at boatloads of tourists that encroach on their hunting grounds each year. Imagine them saying “Bye-bye” to trawlers. Imagine them ruining countless nature documentaries by screaming “Hello” to BBC camera crews while filming.

And what if Wikie and her kind later develop sarcasm? Can you imagine, in an age where our oceans become bereft and depleted of nutrition, the words “So long and thanks for all the fish!”, delivered in a sarcastic tone? In a perverse sort of way, I suspect Douglas Adams would have laughed long and loud at this idea. And then wept.

Listen to killer whales mimicking human voices – audio

But there are positives to this possible cross-species dialogue, and perhaps it is this potential that we should focus on. Imagine a non-human animal that could speak up – in human words – against the degradation of a vast ecosystem like that of the oceans? In such a world, perhaps modern politics would find itself a new enemy in marine mammals like Wikie. One can imagine, for instance, in some alternative universe, a language-endowed Wikie being invited to speak at Davos or some other God-awful international event.

One can imagine the soundbites (“Amy?”); the 7.45am BBC Breakfast interview; the cosy press conferences with Wikie, wide-eyed in a giant blow-up birthing pool in front of the cameras, next to a shady foreign president secretly plotting her kind’s political downfall while sipping imported water from a non-recyclable plastic bottle. (While writing this it strikes me how, in moments like these, just how so many of us would side with these talkative killer whales). But alas, such imaginative scenarios are just that – imaginative.

You knew this bit was coming. It is time to burst the bubble about this female killer whale. Wikie has a kind of magic about her, but it is not yet a two-way conversation. She is a mimic, pure and simple and she is hungry for her fish rewards. In the same way as a 14-year-old can armpit-fart his way through Bach’s Fifth Symphony to achieve 1,000-plus views on YouTube, without ever truly knowing Bach, this killer whale has hit upon a neat trick for reward by exhaling in a measured way that sounds a little like human voice.

But that doesn’t make the science hogwash. Far from it. It’s a beginning. And all scientific journeys have a beginning. We’ll need wild, untainted, unspoiled populations to test ideas on. We need to get away from fish rewards. We need to move away from captive research. This is a start. It’s not the end. They may one day talk with us, but not like this.

And so, in my wildest dreams it won’t be a “bye-bye” or a “hello” that curries favour with an intelligent species such as the killer whale, but a word of more depth: a word like “friend” or “partner” or “respect”. And further down the line maybe we could manage something else. Dialogue. Truth. Meaning.

As of recent times, these are no longer uniquely human concepts when it comes to zoology. Welcome to the brave new world. You happen to be alive in it. But who else is listening? Increasingly, we shall get to decide. Bye-bye, or hello: you and I get to choose.

Jules Howard is a zoologist and the author of Sex on Earth, and Death on Earth

Orcas can imitate human speech, research reveals (The Guardian)

Killer whales able to copy words such as ‘hello’ and ‘bye bye’ as well as sounds from other orcas, study shows

High-pitched, eerie and yet distinct, the sound of a voice calling the name “Amy” is unmistakable. But this isn’t a human cry – it’s the voice of a killer whale called Wikie.

New research reveals that orcas are able to imitate human speech, in some cases at the first attempt, saying words such as “hello”, “one, two” and “bye bye”.

The study also shows that the creatures are able to copy unfamiliar sounds produced by other orcas – including a sound similar to blowing a raspberry.

Scientists say the discovery helps to shed light on how different pods of wild killer whales have ended up with distinct dialects, adding weight to the idea that they are the result of imitation between orcas. The creatures are already known for their ability to copy the movements of other orcas, with some reports suggesting they can also mimic the sounds of bottlenose dolphins and sea lions.

“We wanted to see how flexible a killer whale can be in copying sounds,” said Josep Call, professor in evolutionary origins of mind at the University of St Andrews and a co-author of the study. “We thought what would be really convincing is to present them with something that is not in their repertoire – and in this case ‘hello’ [is] not what a killer whale would say.”

Wikie is not the first animal to have managed the feat of producing human sounds: dolphins, elephants, parrots, orangutans and even beluga whales have all been captured mimicking our utterances, although they use a range of physical mechanisms to us to do so. Noc, the beluga whale, made novel use of his nasal cavities, while Koshik, an Indian elephant jammed his trunk in his mouth, resulting in the pronouncement of Korean words ranging from “hello” to “sit down” and “no”.

But researchers say only a fraction of the animal kingdom can mimic human speech, with brain pathways and vocal apparatus both thought to determine whether it is possible.

“That is what makes it even more impressive – even though the morphology [of orcas] is so different, they can still produce a sound that comes close to what another species, in this case us, can produce,” said Call.

He poured cold water, however, on the idea that orcas might understand the words they mimic. “We have no evidence that they understand what their ‘hello’ stands for,” he said.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, researchers from institutions in Germany, UK, Spain and Chile, describe how they carried out the latest research with Wikie, a 14-year-old female orca living in an aquarium in France. She had previously been trained to copy actions performed by another orca when given a human gesture.

After first brushing up Wikie’s grasp of the “copy” command, she was trained to parrot three familiar orca sounds made by her three-year old calf Moana.

Wikie was then additionally exposed to five orca sounds she had never heard before, including noises resembling a creaking door and the blowing a raspberry.

Finally, Wikie was exposed to a human making three of the orca sounds, as well as six human sounds, including “hello”, “Amy”, “ah ha”, “one, two” and “bye bye”.

“You cannot pick a word that is very complicated because then I think you are asking too much – we wanted things that were short but were also distinctive,” said Call.

Throughout the study, Wikie’s success was first judged by her two trainers and then confirmed from recordings by six independent adjudicators who compared them to the original sound, without knowing which was which.

The team found that Wikie was often quickly able to copy the sounds, whether from an orca or a human, with all of the novel noises mimicked within 17 trials. What’s more, two human utterances and all of the human-produced orca sounds were managed on the first attempt – although only one human sound – “hello” – was correctly produced more than 50% of the time on subsequent trials.

The matching was further backed up through an analysis of various acoustic features from the recordings of Wikie’s sounds.

While the sounds were all made and copied when the animals’ heads were out of the water, Call said the study shed light on orca behaviour.

“I think here we have the first evidence that killer whales may be learning sounds by vocal imitation, and this is something that could be the basis of the dialects we observe in the wild – it is plausible,” said Call, noting that to further test the idea, trials would have to be carried out with wild orcas.

Diana Reiss, an expert in dolphin communication and professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, welcomed the research, noting that it extends our understanding of orcas’ vocal abilities, with Wikie able to apply a “copy” command learned for imitation of actions to imitation of sounds.

Dr Irene Pepperberg, an expert in parrot cognition at Harvard University, also described the study as exciting, but said: “A stronger test would have been whether the various sounds produced could be correctly classified by humans without the models present for comparison.”