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White Whale Mimics Human Conversation

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Beluga white whale, NOC

American scientists have identified a male beluga whale capable of making human-like sounds and spontaneously mimicking human conversations.

According to a paper published online in Current Biology, researchers heard a nine-year-old whale named NOC emitting sounds octaves below normal ones.

The discovery occurred when a diver at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in California surfaced and heard a voice telling him “to get out.” The voice led the researchers to find the mystery of where the sound was coming from.

Then the researchers identified NOC and made the first-ever recordings of the behavior in animals.

“Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds,” said president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation and lead author on the paper, Sam Ridgway.

“The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale,” he added.

While dolphins have been taught to mimic the pattern and durations of sounds in human speech, no animal has spontaneously tried such mimicry so far.

Scientists discovered that not only the released vocal expressions resemble human ones (with three bursts per second on average), but the whale also made some human-like pauses between the bursts, which takes things to a whole new level.

Analysis of the recordings also demonstrated that the frequencies within them were spread out into “harmonics” in a way very unlike the normal vocalizations in whales and remarkably close to those of human speech.

To achieve further information, the researchers rewarded the mysterious whale for the speech-like sounds and examined him through divergent tests.

They found that NOC was able to rapidly change the pressure within his nasal cavity to produce the sounds though they believe that the mimicry was no easy task for the whale.


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