"But if you learn from the experience of the others it's more safe", said Abramson.
In each trial, the killer whale was given a "do that" hand signal by a researcher, but offered no food reward.
"In mammals it is very rare", said Dr Josep Call of the University of St Andrews, a co-researcher on the study. "We are interested in the possibility that other species also have cultural processes". That ability would support the observation that different orca pods can have different "dialects" that they learn directly from each other. "We have no evidence that they understand what their "hello" stands for", he said.
She had previously been trained to copy actions performed by another orca when given a human gesture. For example, one "bilingual" beluga who was moved to a tank with bottlenose dolphins eventually learned to speak more like a dolphin than another beluga. A French ban on breeding whales and dolphins in captivity has faced legal challenges.
Wikie is a wild killer whale, or orca, which is part of the oceanic dolphins' family.
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For their study, Abramson and colleagues trained Wikie's calf, Moana, to make five sounds outside of Wikie's natural repertoire, including that of a creaking door, an elephant and a raspberry.
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. Wikie attempted some breathy raspberries.
An worldwide team of researchers has taught Wikie, a 14 year-old killer whale in France, to mimic certain simple bits of speech, a discovery that gives them insight into wild orca dialects.
The results of the experiments were documented in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Since then, many changes have been made by theme parks in the care of their animals and heartening progress has been developed towards conservation, rescue and rehabilitation...but still, there's not much for the whales to do most of the time. Comparative evidence has revealed that although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is mostly uniquely human among primates, a few distantly related taxa of birds and mammals have also independently evolved this capacity.
Heike Vester, director of Ocean Sounds, a nonprofit cetacean research organization based in Germany, noted that this research was limited by its sample size of one.
Researchers have lately found that orcas got different accents and those accents are picked up by the killer whales while they imitate the adults when they are young, just like children learn how to speak by mimicking and copying. The findings suggest that a captive whale's ability to deftly mimic unfamiliar noises hints that imitation likely plays an important role in building orcas' unique "vocal traditions".