Parrots are apparently not the only animals that can impersonate people: A captive beluga whale was able to spontaneously mimic human speech, according to a new study released in the United States this week.
“The whale’s vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance,” said Sam Ridgway, president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation and co-author of the study, which was published Monday on the web site of the scientific journal Current Biology.
The “talking” white whale, whose name was NOC, was a male and lived for 30 years at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California, until his death in 2007.
Ridgway and other researchers started hearing noises that sounded like people talking near NOC’s enclosure back in 1984, but eventually the whale was identified as the source of the chattering. The mystery was solved by researchers when “a diver mistook the whale for a human voice giving him underwater directions,” Ridgway said.
After the discovery, scientists began to record NOC’s speech-like sounds both underwater and when the mammal surfaced, studying the composition and structure of his ability to mimic.
Most of the whale’s utterances sounded like mumbled conversation rather than clear distinct words, but the rhythm and frequencies of his sounds were similar to human speech. The sounds were also several octaves lower in frequency than usual whale calls.
While exact words were not heard, scientists believe that NOC’s behavior is an example of vocal learning by a whale, and that the mammal tried to mimic human speech by making sounds through its nasal cavities.
After four years of studying NOC’s sonic behavior, scientists no longer heard speech-like sounds, “but he did remain quite vocal,” Ridgway said. The whale may have stopped making human-like utterances because he had reached sexual maturity.
While it has been almost 30 years since NOC’s mimicry was revealed, Ridgway is hoping that publishing the study will lead to further discoveries about marine mammals’ learning and vocalization.
“How this unique ‘mind’ interacts with other animals, humans and the ocean environment is a major challenge of our time,” he said.