We now know that beluga whales can mimic human speech — and one was actually doing it more than a decade ago.
According to a report in the journal Current Biology, new studies of recordings made by a beluga whale named NOC presents the first evidence of a cetacean spontaneously picking up human speech and then repeating it back untrained.
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The discovery of NOC’s newfound ability was somewhat happenstance, writes the paper’s lead author Sam Ridgway, president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. While a diver was in NOC’s tank he thought he heard someone calling him “out” of the tank. It was soon discovered that NOC was the one actually making the repeated sound. Researcher began to study the whale’s vocal patterns, and Ridgway says the whale accomplished “vocal learning” to create intervals, frequencies, octaves and harmonics “unlike usual whale sounds, but not unlike those of the human voice.”
NOC was able to change the timing between noises and drop his tone “several octaves lower than the whale’s usual sounds” when it wanted to mimic human voices. To get that new sound, the whale also had to completely changed the way it made noises. “Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds,” Ridgeway writes.