Tag Archives: Orcas

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

Opinion

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.”

Killer whales learn to communicate like dolphins (Science Daily)

Date: October 7, 2014

Source: Acoustical Society of America (ASA)

Summary: The sounds that most animals use to communicate are innate, not learned. However, a few species, including humans, can imitate new sounds and use them in appropriate social contexts. This ability, known as vocal learning, is one of the underpinnings of language. Now, researchers have found that killer whales can engage in cross-species vocal learning: when socialized with bottlenose dolphins, they shifted the sounds they made to more closely match their social partners.

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) can engage in cross-species vocal learning: when socialized with bottlenose dolphins, they shifted the types of sounds they made to more closely match their social partners. Credit: © RKP / Fotolia

From barks to gobbles, the sounds that most animals use to communicate are innate, not learned. However, a few species, including humans, can imitate new sounds and use them in appropriate social contexts. This ability, known as vocal learning, is one of the underpinnings of language.

Vocal learning has also been observed in bats, some birds, and cetaceans, a group that includes whales and dolphins. But while avian researchers have characterized vocal learning in songbirds down to specific neural pathways, studying the trait in large marine animals has presented more of a challenge.

Now, University of San Diego graduate student Whitney Musser and Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute senior research scientist Dr. Ann Bowles have found that killer whales (Orcinus orca) can engage in cross-species vocal learning: when socialized with bottlenose dolphins, they shifted the types of sounds they made to more closely match their social partners. The results, published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, suggest that vocal imitation may facilitate social interactions in cetaceans.

Killer whales have complex vocal repertoires made up of clicks, whistles and pulsed calls — repeated brief bursts of sound punctuated with silence. The acoustic features of these vocalizations, such as their duration, pitch and pulse pattern, vary across social groups. Whales that are closely related or live together produce similar pulsed calls that carry vocal characteristics distinct to the group, known as a dialect.

“There’s been an idea for a long time that killer whales learn their dialect, but it isn’t enough to say they all have different dialects so therefore they learn. There needs to be some experimental proof so you can say how well they learn and what context promotes learning,” said Bowles.

Testing vocal learning ability in social mammals usually requires observing the animal in a novel social situation, one that might stimulate them to communicate in new ways. Bottlenose dolphins provide a useful comparison species in this respect: they make generally similar sounds but produce them in different proportions, relying more on clicks and whistles than the pulsed calls that dominate killer whale communication.

“We had a perfect opportunity because historically, some killer whales have been held with bottlenose dolphins,” said Bowles. By comparing old recordings of vocalization patterns from the cross-socialized subjects with recordings of killer whales and bottlenose dolphins housed in same-species groups, Bowles and her team were able to evaluate the degree to which killer whales learned vocalization patterns from their cross-species social partners.

All three killer whales that had been housed with dolphins for several years shifted the proportions of different call types in their repertoire to more closely match the distribution found in dolphins — they produced more clicks and whistles and fewer pulsed calls. The researchers also found evidence that killer whales can learn completely new sounds: one killer whale that was living with dolphins at the time of the experiment learned to produce a chirp sequence that human caretakers had taught to her dolphin pool-mates before she was introduced to them.

Vocal learning skills alone don’t necessarily mean that killer whales have language in the same way that humans do. However, they do indicate a high level of neural plasticity, the ability to change circuits in the brain to incorporate new information. “Killer whales seem to be really motivated to match the features of their social partners,” said Bowles, though the adaptive significance of the behavior is not yet known.

There are immediate reasons to study the vocal patterns of cetaceans: these marine mammals are threatened by human activities through competition for fishery resources, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with vessels, exposure to pollutants and oil spills and, ultimately, shrinking habitats due to anthropogenic climate change. If their social bonds are closely linked to their vocalizations, killer whales’ ability to survive amidst shifting territories and social groups may be tied to their ability to adapt their communication strategies.

“It’s important to understand how they acquire [their vocalization patterns], and lifelong, to what degree they can change it, because there are a number of different [cetacean] populations on the decline right now,” said Bowles. “And where killer whales go, we can expect other small whale species to go — it’s a broader question.”


Journal Reference:

  1. Whitney B. Musser, Ann E. Bowles, Dawn M. Grebner, and Jessica L. Crance.Differences in acoustic features of vocalizations produced by killer whales cross-socialized with bottlenose dolphins. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 2014 DOI: 10.1121/1.4893906

Proposed California Law Would Free SeaWorld’s Orcas (WIRED)

BY BRANDON KEIM
03.07.14

Orcas performing at SeaWorld San Diego. Image: z2amiller/Flickr

Orcas performing at SeaWorld San Diego. Image: z2amiller/Flickr

A California lawmaker has proposed a ban on keeping killer whales in captivity for purposes of human entertainment.

Announced today by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act would outlaw SeaWorld-style shows, as well as captive breeding of the creatures. Violations would be punished by $100,000 in fines, six months in jail, or both.

No hearing has yet been scheduled on the proposal, which will require a majority vote to pass through legislature. It’s also unclear how much support the bill will have, though California has passed progressive animal legislation in the recent past, including bans on shark fin soup and hunting bears with dogs.

“There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes,” Bloom said in a public statement. “These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete tanks for their entire lives. It is time to end the practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement.”

Bloom’s proposed law isn’t the first of its kind: South Carolina banned the public display of dolphins in 1992, as did Maui County, Hawaii in 2002. In February of this year, New York state senator Greg Ball introduced a bill that would ban orca confinement in sea parks and aquariums.

Unlike those states, however, California is home to SeaWorld San Diego, where 10 orcas — roughly one-fifth of all captive orcas — are used in performances. “This is a huge state in which to have that ban,” said Lori Marino, a neurobiologist and founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.

In recent years, the experience of captive orcas has come under scrutiny by animal advocates and some scientists, who say that aquarium conditions are simply inappropriate for animals as big, intelligent and highly social as orcas.

As evidence, advocates point to the physical and mental problems of orcas in captivity: They’re short-lived, prone to disease, have difficulty breeding, display extreme aggression and in some cases appear to be emotionally disturbed.

Such was the case with Tillikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando who killed three people, including SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. Her death and SeaWorld’s orcas were the subject of Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that inspired Bloom’s measure, which was written with assistance from Blackfishdirector Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute.

SeaWorld San Diego did not reply to requests for comment, but in a statement, spokesman David Koontz criticized Bloom for “associating with extreme animal rights activists.”

Koontz said the bill reflected the “the same sort of out-of-the-mainstream thinking” as an infamous lawsuit, filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and dismissed in 2012, which invoked the United States Constitution’s slavery-abolishing 13th amendment as grounds for freeing SeaWorld’s orcas.

“We engage in business practices that are responsible, sustainable and reflective of the balanced values all Americans share,” wrote Koontz.

Andrew Trites, head of the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, said that misgivings about keeping whales and dolphins in captivity are not restricted to activists and extremists. They’re something many scientists grapple with.

“We think about this a lot,” he said, “I do understand the strong feelings of those who think it’s entirely wrong. I also understand the value of keeping them in captivity.”

Studying captive orcas can provide information about health and physiology that’s otherwise difficult to obtain, and can be used to benefit wild orcas, said Trites. “But it has to be about more than just entertainment,” he said. “They have to be serving some greater good.”

Marino noted that the bill allows research on orcas held for rehabilitation after being rescued from injury or stranding. Those orcas couldn’t be kept in aquariums, though, but rather in enclosed, shallow-water sea pens that are open to the public — a compromise, perhaps, between greater-good benefits and individual well-being.

Orcas now kept at SeaWorld would be returned to the wild or, if that’s not possible, also kept in sea pens.

If Bloom’s bill passes, it could inspire other such measures, said Marino. “The science is so overwhelming that members of the legislature are convinced, and are putting this out there,” she said. “This is historic.”