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Whale Imitates People, Person Imitates Whales

Science writer Ed Yong, who blogs enjoyably for Discover Magazine, brings to our attention the current issue of Current Biology. A report there by Sam Ridgway and his colleagues tells of a beluga whale, called NOC, who supposedly achieved the distinction of mimicking human speech ("Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean"). He, the beluga, has since passed away.

We interpreted the whale's vocalizations as an attempt to mimic humans. Whale vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range for our understanding. These 'conversations' were heard several times before the whale was identified as the source. 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 (see Supplemental Information ). 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.

As soon as NOC was identified as the source of these sounds, we recorded his speech-like episodes both in air and underwater (Supplemental Information ). Recordings revealed an amplitude rhythm similar to human speech. Although there was variation, vocal bursts averaged about three per second (Figure 1). The rhythm of vocal bursts also reminded us of human speech.

Go ahead and listen at the link above.

Uh, is it just us or does this sound nothing like human speech? Yet the story is already being picked up by the science media with headlines like this from the Telegraph, "Whale learns to mimic human speech." Such is the eagerness out there to narrow the gap between people and animals. If we were peer-reviewing the article in Current Biology, our review would consist of one three-letter interjection: Meh. It's just not that impressive.

Now check out comic Jim Gaffigan who does an eerily good impression of whale song, embedded in a pretty funny stand-up routine. Ellen DeGeneres is not bad either in a favorite scene of ours from Finding Nemo.

Who does the better job of imitating his/her/its counterpart? Man or aquatic mammal? You decide!

[UPDATE: You may also enjoy the musical stylings of every pre-school kid's favorite recording artist, Raffi, whose song "Baby Beluga" is a winner despite the absence of any attempt at mimicry one way or the other.]