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Beluga Whale Learned To Mimic Human Speech
It may sound like the indecipherable sing-song voice of the Muppets' Swedish chef or Mr Punch, but scientists say it is the first recording of a whale copying human speech.
People reported hearing sounds similar to two people speaking in the distance around a whale and dolphin enclosure at an aquarium in San Diego, California, in 1984.
The sounds were later traced to one particular beluga whale when a diver in its tank came to the surface because he thought he heard colleagues tell him to do so.
The whale, Noc, died five years ago but the research into his sounds has now been published in the journal Current Biology.
Scientists did an acoustic analysis recording Noc and were surprised to find a rhythm similar to that of human speech, Dr Sam Ridgway of the National Marine Mammal Foundation said.
The result was a stream of song-like sounds very different from the clicks and whistles whales normally use to echolocate and communicate with each other.
"Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds," he said.
"Whale voice prints were similar to the human voice and unlike the whale's usual sounds. The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale."
The whale made human-like sounds for around four years until it reached the age of sexual maturity, Dr Ridgway said.
Noc would have heard human speech both from speakers above the surface and divers' underwater communication equipment, said the researchers.
"We do not claim that our whale was a good mimic compared to such well-known mimics as parrots or mynah birds," they said in the research paper.
"However, the sonic behaviour we observed is an example of vocal learning by the white whale.
"It seems likely that Noc's close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his human voice, as well as in its quality."
There have been previous anecdotal reports of whales mimicking human speech.
A keeper at Vancouver Aquarium in Canada claimed he heard a white whale utter his name, Lagosi.
Other sounds made by the whale were described as "garbled human voice, or Russian, or similar to Chinese".