Posted on October 24, 2012 by Laura
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22 October 2012 Last updated at 16:02 GM
Beluga whales are known as “canaries of the sea” because of their frequent, high-pitched calls
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Researchers in the US have been shocked to discover a beluga whale whose vocalisations were remarkably close to human speech.
While dolphins have been taught to mimic the pattern and durations of
sounds in human speech, no animal has spontaneously tried such mimicry.
But researchers heard a nine-year-old whale named NOC make sounds octaves below normal, in clipped bursts.
The researchers outline in Current Biology just how NOC did it.
The first mystery, though, was figuring out where the sound was coming from.
When a diver at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in California
surfaced saying, “Who told me to get out?” the researchers there knew
they had another example on their hands.
The whales are known as “canaries of the sea” for their high-pitched
chirps, but while a number of anecdotal reports have described whales
making human-like speech, none had ever been recorded.
Once they identified NOC as the culprit, they caught it on tape.
They found that vocal bursts averaged about three per second, with
pauses reminiscent of human speech. Analysis of the recordings showed
that the frequencies within them were spread out into “harmonics” in a
way very unlike whales’ normal vocalisations and more like those of
They then rewarded NOC for the speech-like sounds to teach him to
make them on command and fitted him with a pressure transducer within
his nasal cavity, where sounds are produced, to monitor just what was
They found that he was able to rapidly change the pressure within his nasal cavity to produce the sounds.
To amplify the comparatively low-frequency parts of the
vocalisations, he over-inflated what is known at the vestibular sac in
his blowhole – which normally acts to stop water entering the lungs.
In short, the mimicry was no easy task for NOC.
“Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal
mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds,” said Sam Ridgway,
president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation and lead author on
“The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale.”
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