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Contact: Us Scientists Report Whale Making Human Voice Sounds; 'An Example Of Vocal Learning'

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For the first time, researchers have been able to show by acoustic analysis that whales—or at least one very special white whale—can imitate the voices of humans. That's a surprise, because whales typically produce sounds in a manner that is wholly different from humans, say researchers who report their findings in the October 23 issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

"Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds," said Sam Ridgway of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. "Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact."

It all started in 1984 when Ridgway and others began to notice some unusual sounds in the vicinity of the whale and dolphin enclosure. As they describe it, it sounded as though two people were conversing in the distance, just out of range of their understanding.

Those unusually familiar sounds were traced back to one white whale in particular only some time later when a diver surfaced from the whale enclosure to ask his colleagues an odd question: "Who told me to get out?"

They deduced that those utterances came from a most surprising source: a white whale by the name of NOC. That whale had lived among dolphins and other white whales and had often been in the presence of humans.

In fact, there had been other anecdotal reports of whales sounding like humans before, but in this case Ridgway's team wanted to capture some real evidence. They recorded the whale's sounds to reveal a rhythm similar to human speech and fundamental frequencies several octaves lower than typical whale sounds, much closer to that of the human voice.

"Whale voice prints were similar to human voice and unlike the whale's usual sounds," Ridgway said. "The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale."

That's all the more remarkable because whales make sounds via their nasal tract, not in the larynx as humans do. To make those human-like sounds, NOC had to vary the pressure in his nasal tract while making other muscular adjustments and inflating the vestibular sac in his blowhole, the researchers found. In other words, it wasn't easy.

Sadly, after 30 years at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, NOC passed away five years ago. But the sound of his voice lives on.

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of UnderwaterTimes.com, its staff or its advertisers.

Reader Comments

5 people have commented so far. cloud add your comment

I believe there are some whale species that try and communicate with us, but are not verbaly equiped to do so. Like a baby that has full mental ability to communicate,yet, lags the nerve endings connectivity to vocal muscles.
   comment# 1   - Antonio M. Melchor · Kirby, USA · Oct 22, 2012 @ 10:36pm

Maybe the captive whale is saying "Get me the hell out of this ridiculously small pool where I am going crazy and put me back in the ocean where I belong."
   comment# 2   - Teresa · Carmel, CA · Oct 23, 2012 @ 9:12am

CAN HE SPEAK SPANSISH MACKEREL
   comment# 3   - NOMERCYJG · KINSTON;NC · Oct 23, 2012 @ 12:49pm

Heard the sounds, nothing discernible, like "Poly wanna cracker" ...
   comment# 4   - Don · Dallas · Oct 23, 2012 @ 8:06pm

Don...you are certainly entitled to believe you have the corner on the intelligence market. Human arrogance is beyond boundary.
   comment# 5   - Dave · Chicago · Oct 24, 2012 @ 6:08am
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