“Noc” Speaks!

– – We all know that parrots and mynah birds can mimic human speech.  A memorable Far Side cartoon depicted a carload of cows driving past a field of wandering humans, one cow leaning out the window and mocking the “yackety-yack” speech of people.  Well, it seems that we can add another species to the short list of those now know to be capable of speech mimicry..the beluga whale!

Whales are no slouches in the intelligence department, but a study recently published in Current Biology under the title “Spontaneous speech mimicry by a cetacean” really blew me away.  The whale of the study, named Noc, lived at San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation for 30 years before dying in 2007.  It seems that handlers first heard mumbling in 1984 coming from a tank containing whales and dolphins that sounded like two people chatting far away.  One day after a diver surfaced from the tank and asked,  “Who told me to get out?” researchers realized that the garbled sounds came from a captive male Beluga whale.  For several years, they then recorded its spontaneous sounds while it was underwater and upon surfacing. 

An acoustic analysis revealed that the human-like sounds were several octaves lower than typical whale calls, and scientists think that the whale’s close proximity to people enabled it to listen to and mimic human speech by changing the pressure in its nasal cavities.  Now the whale appears to be saying the word “out” over and over, and some have said that it sounds like people singing in the shower or the Muppets’ Swedish Chef. 

Beluga whales, also known as white whales, are sometimes called “the canaries of the sea” because of how vocal they are.  Anecdotal reports have surfaced in the past of whales sounding like humans.  At Vancouver Aquarium, keepers had suggested that a white whale about 15 years of age had uttered his name, “Lagosi.”  While people should not think from these results that whales can communicate with us on a conversational level, it’s an intriguing possibility for future research…

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4 Comments on ““Noc” Speaks!”

  1. carycomic Says:

    I’ve often thought it would simplify matters if–instead of trying to directly translate their bio-sonic signals into human speech–marine biologists just taught captive dolphins International Morse, instead!

    • vulpesffb Says:

      Good thought!–Aquaman, though, will probably continue to communicate telepathically with them…

      • carycomic Says:

        Yeah! Using the same sound effect later used for Col. Steve Austin’s bionic eye.

        • vulpesffb Says:

          I liked the sound effect used when Steve Austin would jump with his bionic legs! I can still play the effect sound in my head, which is scary in itself…and who can forget Col. Austin battling the Sasquatch and the “fembots?!”


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