Could we talk with whales?

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Human-like sounds made by a captive beluga whale suggest that cetaceans could learn to mimic our voices, and perhaps even converse with us. Researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation first noticed in the 1980s that one of their whales was attempting to copy the speech patterns of his handlers and they began recording his human-like vocalizations. Recently, they analyzed those recordings and found that “the beluga did seem to be mimicking human speech, and did so quite successfully”.

Drastically lowering the frequency of his usual whale calls and matching his utterances to the rhythms of human speech, University of Southern Mississippi marine biologist Stan Kuczaj was able to communicate with the whales. Whales don’t have vocal cords, so to make his human-like sounds, the whale, named Noc, had to change the air pressure in his nasal tract and make other adjustments to valves and sacs connected to his blowhole. Such obvious effort suggests that Noc may have been motivated by a desire for contact with the people around him, says study author Sam Ridgway. Noc died before the research was published, but Ridgway says he left behind an intriguing possibility that other captive belugas could one day learn to communicate with humans at “ a conversational level.”