New study unveils beluga whale impersonating human speech

CLEVELAND - The National Marine Mammal Foundation recently published a paper in the scientific journal "Current Biology" that reveals the ability of marine mammals to spontaneously mimic human speech. The study follows a white beluga whale named NOC who began to imitate the human voice – possibly as a result of vocal learning.

Sam Ridgway, president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation who has nearly 50 years of experience in marine mammal medicine and research, explained how a diver mistook the whale's sounds for a human voice giving him underwater directions.

"The whale's vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance," said Ridgway in a news release. "These 'conversations' were heard several times before the whale was eventually identified as the source."

After the discovery, researchers at the NMMF began recording NOC's speech-like episodes both in air and underwater. They studied the physiology behind his ability to mimic and concluded that the animals close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his "human" voice.

Scientists believe NOC's sonic behavior is an example of vocal learning by a white whale. Four years later, NOC's speech-like behavior subsided.

"When NOC matured, we no longer heard speech-like sounds, but he did remain quite vocal," said Ridgway, who also co-authored the research paper. "While it's been a number of years since we first encountered this spontaneous mimicry, it's our hope that publishing our observations now will lead to further discoveries about marine mammal learning and vocalization. How this unique "mind" interacts with other animals, humans and the ocean environment is a major challenge of our time."

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Do you think NOC's speech sounds like human conversation?

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