LISTEN: Beluga Whale Mimics Human Sounds

We now know that beluga whales can mimic human speech — and one was actually doing it more than a decade ago.

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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.

(PHOTOS: A Life With Whales)

Although NOC died in 1999, the researchers who had been caring for him at the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego had spent hours recording him. This just-released audio illustrates how the whale’s natural sounds changed over time to something completely different. His calls bear an uncanny resemblance to the inflections of a human voice, even if the sound itself doesn’t resemble much more than the garble of a fast food drive-thru speaker. Have a listen here:

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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.

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