One of the main things that has advanced human intelligence is the ability to learn. Learning that can be acquired through experience, study, or being taught.
But, what if humans aren’t the only ones who are capable of learning at profound levels? What if so are, say, killer whales? In the world’s first experiment of its kind, a killer whale named Wikie proved how smart she really is..
Wikie, a 14-year-old female killer whale, also known as an orca was the one tested for the experiment. She lives at the Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France, which is the most visited zoological park in the country and has the largest killer whale pool complex in the world.
Wikie Already Exhibited Mimicking Behaviors
Wikie had previously been trained for a variety of examination and exercise behaviors. Her participation in an action imitation study meant that she already knew the “copy” command in which she would give her fin up. But, this study would be more involved…
Researchers, including Jose Z. Abramson wanted to teach Wikie to mimic human words such as “Hello,” “Amy,” “Bye-Bye” and “One-Two-Three.” This meant that Wikie would need to listen closely to the words and vibrations coming out of Abramson’s mouth and then repeat them. But, would she be able to do it?
With her head above water, Wikie the killer whale looked up at her human trainer next to her pool, listened carefully then loudly vocalizes, “Hello.” It is the first scientific demonstration of an orca mimicking human words…
“A Very High Quality Match”
While it was not a perfect match of the word like a parrot might do, Abramson, of the Complutense University of Madrid said it’s good enough. In a trial with six different words or phrases, some or Wikie’s attempts were “a very high-quality match,” especially given that orcas’ vocal anatomy is completely different to ours.
“Deep, Throaty Sound”
Wikie took several stabs at “hello,” and every time she voiced two syllables with something resembling an “l” in the middle and an “o” at the end. Her most convincing attempt is a deep, throaty sound, the same way a cartoon character might say hello…
Practice Makes Perfect
Then, Wikie also tried to mimic “Amy,” who is her trainer. She surprisingly managed this as well, but she had a bit more trouble with “One-Two-Three.” The last syllable sounded a bit like a “raspberry,” the sound that humans make by pushing their tongue between their lips and letting out air which produces a vibration.
Ability To Mimic
Still, make no mistake that Wikie’s ability to mimic doesn’t mean she understands what she’s saying. Specifically, because no context or meaning was provided to the words during the study. When Wikie first spoke, however, the research team didn’t know what to expect…
Orcas Are Highly Intelligent
“When we tried ‘hello’ and she did the sound… some emotional responses came from the trainers. For us (the scientists) it was very difficult not to say anything,” claimed Abramson. The experiment showed that orcas are incredibly intelligent.
Imitation skills are a sign of intelligence since they allow animals to learn lessons from peers. The alternative, however, is learning through trial and error, which Abramson says can be very costly…
Capacity For Social Learning
“If you find that other species have also the capacity for social learning, and of complex social learning that could be imitation or teaching, you expect a lot of flexibility in that species,” he said. This allows the species to adapt more easily to changes in their environment which improves their survival skills.
In the past, killer whales have been shown to mimic dolphin sounds. But, this new experiment has been revolutionary. “The capacity for vocal imitation shown in this study may scaffold the natural vocal traditions of killer whales in the wild.” Still, the research has prompted criticism from campaigners who argue whales should not be “imprisoned.”
Intelligent Animals In Captivity
UK director of the Humane Society International, Claire Bass, says Wikie’s ability to imitate human speech “is as tragic as she is fascinating.” “She is certainly further proof that these are highly intelligent mammals whose captivity in marine parks in the 21st century should come to an end,” she said.
People from the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) agree, saying that orcas belong in the wild where each family has its own “culture and a unique group dialect.” Keep in mind, the experiments on Wikie were carried out at Marineland Antibes. which faced criticism in 2015…
Killer Whale Died In Flooding
In October 2015, Marineland announced the death of one of its orcas following extreme weather and flooding. Environmental campaigners took legal action against the marine park after whales, sharks, sea lions, and turtles died.
The Storm Took The Life Of Valetin And Many Others
Valetin, a 19-year-old orca died of internal injuries a week after the storm left the park since there wasn’t electricity to pump in clean water. This was a further example of why whales belong in the ocean and not in waterparks…
Legal complaints were launched against Marineland Antibes, claiming the park mistreats its animals and has polluted the local environment. What followed was a 300-person protest outside the park, just one week after it reopened following the storm damage.
Protesters Lashed Out
Protesters argued that the enclosures were inadequate for animals and that the marine life should not have been in danger from the storm in the first place. People felt the park should have been prepared for something like this if they are so concerned about their mammals…
Claims The Park Increases Public Awareness
The park’s director argued that Marineland increases public awareness of marine life by allowing people to see the animals in the flesh. But, Marineland isn’t the only park getting scrutinized.
SeaWorld in the U.S. has also been repeatedly criticized over the treatment of its killer whales. In 2016, SeaWorld announced it was ending its controversial orca breeding program, meaning that the 24 whales at the company’s theme parks in California, Florida, and Texas, would be the last generation of orcas at the parks. We are still uncertain what the fate of the orcas is at Marineland.