Researchers have taught an orca, also known as a killer whale, to imitate human speech sounds. CC0 Creative Commons

A killer whale can say things like “hello,” “bye-bye” and “one two three” after a team of scientists taught her to imitate human speech sounds.

The orca’s human-like vocalizations represent a breakthrough, as it is the first time such capacity for imitation has been shown in the species. Additionally, copying sounds from peers is considered a rare phenomenon in general, with birds being another animal that has been noted for the skill.

“Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fueled the evolution of human culture,” the scientists said in their study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. “Although the ability to copy sounds from conspecifics is widespread in birds, it is strikingly rare in mammals, and among primates it is uniquely human.”

Orcas have previously been shown to make vocalizations that they learned from their mothers and from other groups, a skill that served as a basis for the new experiments.

They wrote that the whale they were training and prompting, a 14-year-old female named Wikie, “made recognizable copies” of the sounds she heard from humans and from a young peer, her 3-year-old calf, Moana — “and did so relatively quickly.”

The researchers had taught the calf new sounds and then prompted Wikie to imitate them. They also had Wikie copy sounds she heard through a loudspeaker and from her human handlers.

Audio recordings of the killer whale’s speech include clips of the creature imitating the simple phrases as well as copying certain sounds outside of human language, like a creaking door and someone blowing a raspberry.

“Wikie succeeded in copying all sounds regardless of whether they were produced by a model of the same species, either live or through a speaker, or by a human model,” Complutense University of Madrid (link in Spanish) said in a statement. “The atypical nature of some of the sounds that are used (human speech) shows the great flexibility of this species. The results show that evolution has endowed killer whales with sophisticated imitative capacities and supports the hypothesis that the dialects that have been documented in this species and in other cetaceans can be acquired and maintained through social learning and, more specifically, through imitation.”