A whale with a distinctly human-like voice

A beluga whale is seen in an aquarium
A beluga whale is seen in an aquarium. US marine biologists puzzled by human-like sounds coming from the whale and dolphin tank of an aquarium concluded they were actually coming from a whale.

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.

"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 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.

This audio clip captures the unusual speech-like sounds from white whale NOC. See supplemental information for more data. Credit: Current Biology, Ridgway et al.

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 and fundamental frequencies several octaves lower than typical whale sounds, much closer to that of the .

"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 make sounds via their nasal tract, not in the 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.

Explore further

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More information: Ridgeway et al.: "Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean" Current Biology www.cell.com/current-biology/a … 0960-9822(12)01009-3
Journal information: Current Biology

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Oct 22, 2012
Better than a dog, but still far from a parrot...

Oct 22, 2012
prometheus is that you?

Oct 22, 2012
"Current Biology", "1984", that is ridiculous, no excuse for delaying reports 28 years. They needed 28 years to say: hey world, we have an interesting recording? Waiting for a translation? That is not in the spirit of science. I don't know who is to blame, could be the journals...who knows, but something is broken if it takes this long.

If scientists are sitting on interesting findings for decades, they should be removed. People don't pay for scientists to find things out for scientists' own edification.

I am probably over reacting, as I don't know the issues in this case but you other scientists out there sitting on stuff...GET IT OUT!, or start flipping burgers or something else slightly useful as a scientist you are of no use to anyone if you do not publish and in a reasonably timely fashion. There is no excuse; there are all sorts of sites to publish at, and journals.

I hope I did not violate any code here...I don't usually go off like this.

Oct 22, 2012
Have any of you read David Brin's "Star Tide Rising"? In this novel mankind is busy "uplifting" chimps and dolphins to sapience.

Oct 22, 2012
"So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish"

Oct 22, 2012
Who paid them to make sure no-one studied this animal and tried to build a language with it?

Probably the US govt since we have been decimating whale culture with our sonar systems...

we have to frightened to imagine what they would say about us.

Oct 22, 2012
listen to it as if you are listening to a foreign language and listen to the tone trying to read the emotions in the communication.

it sounds like it was trying to get us to communicate with it. it sounds like someone talking about being frustrated.

Oct 23, 2012
The translation is as follows.

"Get me the hell out of this prison, you seal fuckers."

Oct 23, 2012
Chance is its an extra terrestrial, if you ask me.

Oct 24, 2012
Perhaps they have been talking with the mermaids for a long time.

Oct 28, 2012
I suppose it needed today's technology and social tools for something like this to go viral. I am sure 99% of the people don't even realise this whale is 5 years dead. A sad voice and a missed opportunity.

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