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LISTEN: How it sounds when a Beluga whale shocks scientists, mimics human-talk

Photo by David Paul Ohmer via Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Freezy SoIce via Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Dave Mee via Flickr Creative Commons

io9 reports that researchers have released the first audio evidence of a cetacean spontaneously mimicking human speech (listen below to see how a whale thinks we sound).

The kibbitzing cetacean in question is not a trained dolphin but rather a beluga whale named "NOC," who was part of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, California.

NOC died in 1999, but his vocalizations, both in air and underwater, were recorded and investigated by researchers, revealing an "amplitude rhythm similar to human speech," according marine scientist Sam Ridgway in the newest issue of Current Biology

Ridgway calls the white whale's intervals, frequencies, octaves, and harmonics "unlike usual whale sounds, but not unlike those of the human voice" and believes NOC's mimicry is a feat of "vocal learning." 

The sounds were also observed visibly by atypical, extreme inflation of the vestibular sac, a process that "may have been necessary to emphasize lower frequencies of the speech-like sounds," according to the study.

After seven years in our care, a white whale called NOC began, spontaneously, to make unusual sounds. We interpreted the whale’s vocalizations as an attempt to mimic humans...The whale lived among a group of dolphins and socialized with two female white whales. The whale was exposed to speech not only from humans at the surface — it was present at times when divers used surface-to-diver communication equipment.

The whale was recognized as the source of the speech-like sounds when a diver surfaced outside this whale’s enclosure and asked "Who told me to get out?" Our observations led us to conclude the "out," which was repeated several times, came from NOC.

With what is known about cetacean intelligence, io9 points to some possible ramifications of the study including inter-species communicationurgent moral considerations regarding captivity, and asks the question, "do we need a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans?"