From Orcas To Ducks – The Surprising Animals That Can Mimic Human Speech

From Orcas To Ducks – The Surprising Animals That Can Mimic Human Speech

Animals mimicking different sounds is nothing new in the natural world: some birds can mimic the sounds of car alarms and camera shutters with surprising accuracy, while some predator species may have learned the calls of their prey to lure them to an untimely end. However, some species have gone a step further and learned to mimic human speech. We’re not talking about the standard parrots (although we do love Alex) – we’re talking about those animals you wouldn’t normally expect. 

Chatty cetaceans 

Killer whales have been up to all sorts of hijinks this year sinking boats across the Med, but they’re also our first mimicking animal on the list. An orca named Wikie was taught to mimic human speech, eventually being able to speak out words and phrasing including, “hello”, “bye-bye” and “Amy” the name of her trainer. 

While we’re not saying Wikie’s speech was by any means perfect, it does throw up interesting questions about these intelligent marine mammals and their acquisition of vocal noises. Although Wilkie didn’t understand the meaning behind the words, her mimicry was pretty accurate when you look at the waveform of the sounds produced compared to the soundwaves of a human. 

Sticking to the marine mammal theme, meet NOC the beluga whale. Part of the US Marine Mammal Navy program, NOC was procured in the 1970s for an Arctic initiative known as “Cold Ops”, according to Smithsonian

NOC’s voice sounds like burbling, a sort of underwater long-distance mimic of human speech – was he attempting to breach the language divide? Or had being surrounded by US Navy trainers since he was two years old rubbed off on him? A paper published on NOC’s noises found that the amplitude rhythm was similar to human speech. 

The world’s first talking duck

Our next animal on the list is an IFLScience team favorite, a pet duck named Ripper who learned to mimic his owner’s voice. Not only could he also mimic the sound of his cage door closing, his party piece was saying “You bloody fool”, a phrase that perhaps his owner had said so often that it started to sink in. 

A seal with a Maine accent

Next up we have Hoover the talking seal. Hoover was rescued as a pup and lived inside a house before moving to the New England Aquarium in the 1970s. In a similar way to Ripper, Hoover picked up some words from his owner, even managing to convey the same Maine accent. The video does not have brilliant sound quality, but if you skip to 3:25, you can hear Hoover say “Hey hey, get out!”. More recordings of Hoover’s voice can also be found in this paper from 2023.

An elephant that speaks Korean

Far from just mimicking the English language, Koshik, a male Asian elephant, learned to mimic the voice of his trainer in Korea by putting his trunk inside his mouth. “Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns. He accurately imitates human formants as well as the voice pitch of his trainers. This is remarkable considering the huge size, the long vocal tract, and other anatomical differences between an elephant and a human,” explained zoologist Angela Stoeger in the Guardian

The mimicry is so accurate that “Korean native speakers can readily understand and transcribe the imitations,” write Stoeger and colleagues in a 2012 study that looked at Koshik’s vocalizations in more detail. The study team believes Koshik’s imitations came from a need to socialize both with other elephants and across species. 

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