Whale 'mimicked' human speech

Tue, Oct 23, 2012, 01:00

A recording of human-like sounds made by a whale almost 20 years ago may have been an example of vocal learning, according to a paper published this week in a science journal by a US marine research foundation.

In 1984, handlers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California, heard mumbling coming from a tank containing whales and dolphins that sounded like two people chatting far away.

Researchers realised the source of the sound after a diver surfaced from the tank and asked: “Who told me to get out?” The garble came from a captive male Beluga whale named Noc.

"The whale's vocalisations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance," said Dr Sam Ridgway, president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation.

For several years, the foundation recorded its spontaneous sounds while it was underwater and when it surfaced.

An acoustic analysis revealed the human-like sounds were several octaves lower than typical whale calls. The research paper has been published in the science journal Current Biology.

“When Noc matured, we no longer heard speech-like sounds, but he did remain quite vocal,” Dr Ridgway said.

Most Discussed