World’s first talking killer whale: Wikie the orca learns to say ‘hello’ and ‘bye bye’

January 31, 2018

Whales are known for their impressive communications skills which allow pods to ‘talk’ to each other through complex clicks and singing, even when they are 100 miles apart.

But a new experiment has shown the mammals are also apparently capable of mimicking human speech, a feat that was previously believed to be limited to primates, birds, elephants, dolphins and seals.

Scientists say they have recorded a killer whale named Wikie repeating the words ‘hello’ and ‘bye bye’, counting up to three, and even saying the name of her trainer ‘Amy.’

The 14-year-old orca lives in Marineland at Antibes, France, and is the first in the world ever recorded by scientists allegedly saying human words.

The achievement is even more remarkable because whales do not have the same vocal ability as humans having evolved to make their own sounds underwater. While humans use the larynx to speak, whales produce sounds through their nasal passages using bursts of air.

Recently scientists have discovered that whales have different ‘accents’ or ‘cultures’ and the new study suggests that those differences are picked up when young through imitation of adults, in a similar way to how children learn to speak through copying.

Writing in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, José Abramson of theComplutense University of Madrid, said: “Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fuelled the evolution of human culture.

“We found that the subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly, most during the first 10 trials and three in the first attempt.

“Our results lend support to the hypothesis that the vocal variants observed in natural populations of this species can be socially learned by imitation.”

In the wild, killer whales live in pods and each has its own dialect, which includes calls that are completely unique to themselves. Some clicks are even thought to represent names. But it was unclear where that knowledge came from.

Previously killer whales have been observed mimicking the barks of sea lions and the whistles of sea dolphins and beluga whales have been filmed apparently imitating humans, but until now no controlled experiments have been carried out to verify the reports.

In the new trial, Wikie was trained to understand a ‘copy’ signal then invited to repeat 11 completely new sounds given by her trainer. They included words and also noises such as an elephant call, a wolf howl and a creaking door.

Wikie was given a fish or an affectionate pat when she achieved the sound to reinforce the learning. Six judges were then asked to rate whether the vocalisation matched the original word or noise.

The researchers concluded: “In sum, Wikie made recognizable copies of the demonstrated sound judged in real time by two observers, Wikie’s trainer and one experimenter, later confirmed by both after listening to the recordings.

“The subject’s matching accuracy is all the more remarkable as she was able to accomplish it in response to sounds presented in-air and not in-water, the species’ usual medium for acoustic communication.

“It is conceivable that our data represent a conservative estimate of the killer whale’s capacity for vocal imitation.”

The whale words were also analysed in waveform and matched the human words when the acoustical recordings were compared.

Dr Alex Thornton, senior lecturer in cognitive evolution at the University of Exeter, said: “We still don’t fully understand why some animals learn to mimic, but there are a few possibilities.

“In some cases, mimicking might be deceptive. Fork-tailed drongos in the Kalahari, for instance, copy meerkat alarm calls so that the meerkats drop their food in alarm and the drongo can swoop in and steal it.

“In other cases, copying sounds might be a way of showing off to potential mates. If a male is good at learning to make lots of different noises, females might use this as an indication that they are also good at learning to find food and feed offspring.

“Finally, in some cases copying sounds might help to identify an individual as a member of a group. Some whales, for example, learn their calls from one another and so have local vocal dialects that mark them out as members of their social group.”

Source: Telegraph.co.uk

To Listen to a recording of the “Mimicry” visit Science mag.org

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Bill to ban orca breeding in Florida dies in the Legislature

January 30, 2018

Amid strong lobbying from SeaWorld against it, a bill to ban orca breeding and future captivity in Florida has died in a legislative subcommittee.

The Florida Orca Protection Act aimed to cement into law what SeaWorld voluntarily adopted in 2016 — an end to its killer whale breeding program and a phase-out of performances as public attitudes about whales in captivity have shifted. California easily passed its own version of the law that same year after SeaWorld dropped an initial fight against the crack down.

Advocates say the marine park’s resistance to making its policy legally binding in Florida, home of its global headquarters, suggests its commitment to making this generation of orcas the last in captivity could be short-lived.

“This shouldn’t be a controversial issue because it’s just making law out of what SeaWorld says its corporate policy is,” Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Lindsay Larris said. “There’s no accountability. It should be the lawmakers holding them accountable.”

IN DEPTH REPORT: Advocates push orca breeding law as SeaWorld’s policy appears murky

State Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, introduced the bill this legislative session after ALDF’s struggle to find a sponsor last year. Former Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, planned to file the bill in 2016 but changed her mind after meeting with SeaWorld officials, she said.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, drafted the bill for this session but decided against filing it after a meeting with SeaWorld officials in December.

SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor previously said because the company has already committed to end orca breeding, “the legislation is unneeded and distracts from the great work being done to positively impact Florida’s wildlife.” SeaWorld had three lobbyists registered to advocate against the bill this session, according to House records.

The Florida Attractions Association — of which SeaWorld is a member — the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and Florida Retail Federation also lobbied on the bill.

The Florida Orca Protection Act had been pending in the House of Representative’s Natural Resources & Public Lands Subcommittee but did not make the agenda of bills to be heard Tuesday.

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, said it did not make the cut because it was introduced in the House without a Senate companion, indicating “there is not a strong will to move this issue this year.”

But there is no House or Senate rule that says only bills with companion measures may be taken up, said Travis Moore, a lobbyist who worked for ALDF on the orca legislation. It’s common for one chamber to move something legislators feel is a priority in order to negotiate policies with the other side, he said.

“It would be helpful and refreshing if SeaWorld cares enough about their own policy to help us instead of working so hard against establishing their own policy as legal public policy,” Moore said. “Their actions are more telling than their words.”

There are 22 captive orcas in the United States — SeaWorld has 10 in San Diego, six in Orlando and five in San Antonio, Texas, parks. The other killer whale in America is wild-born Lolita, brought to Miami Seaquarium in 1970. For decades, Lolita has lived alone in a tank just four times the length of her body.

Along with ending breeding and performing, the Florida bill, like California’s law, would have banned companies from shipping semen from killer whales out of the state.

Larris, the ALDF attorney, said that protection was especially crucial as SeaWorld’s ownership, and potential priorities, shift. Chinese investment firm Zhonghong Zhuoye Group acquired a 21 percent stake in the company in March, becoming the largest shareholder. Two Chinese executives now sit on SeaWorld’s board, one as chairman.

SeaWorld’s attendance is on a steady decline with 9 percent fewer visitors last fall and a 10 percent drop in revenue. Meanwhile, China’s aquarium industry is booming with 55 marine parks today and 27 under way, according to the China Cetacean Alliance.

With uncertainty over the SeaWorld killer whales ahead, Larris said ALDF will continue to advocate for this law to be passed next year. ALDF on Feb. 5 will host a screening for lawmakers in Tallahassee of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which detailed the psychological and physical trauma of captivity and is credited with a massive shift in public attitudes about SeaWorld’s practices.

“If we can’t pass the legislation this session, we want to make sure we educate people as much as possible about the issue,” she said.

Source: Tampa Bay.com

Top French court reverses ban on breeding whales, dolphins

January 29, 2018

France’s highest administrative court on Monday overturned a ban on breeding killer whales and dolphins in captivity after ruling there had been irregularities in the decree putting the legislation into place.

The ban was imposed in May as part of the previous administration’s attempts to improve the living conditions of captive marine mammals in marine parks.

It mirrored a move in California to outlaw breeding of killer whales and which was aimed at bringing an end to the practice of holding the creatures in tanks for human entertainment.

But several marine parks opposed the measure, saying that putting the ban into practice could be cruel.

“This is great news for our animals and zoos. This decree could have been a threat to our institutions,” said Pascal Picot, chief executive of Marineland Antibes in southern France, the largest marine park in Europe.

“We want to update the regulation for cetaceans, which dates back to 1981, with the government and experts, on scientific grounds and not based on convictions,” he said in reference to animal rights groups.

According to activists at uk.whales.org, there are around 3,000 whales and dolphins held in aquariums, zoos and marine parks globally.

Source: Reuters.com

Pod of orcas, dolphins spotted off Palos Verdes coast

January 24, 2018

A pod of orcas and another pod of dolphins were spotted off the coast of Palos Verdes Wednesday.

The killer whales were located almost 2 miles west of Point Vincente. The large pod of orcas breeched the water several times and not far from them the pod of dolphins jumped through the waves and swam off.

At one point, the situation got a little tense when a seal began swimming near the orca pod. At times the orcas circled the seal.

Source: abc7.com

Coast Guard on the Hook in Killer Whale Lawsuit

January 19, 2018

The Coast Guard must face claims by two Northwest tribes that a plan for oil tanker traffic threatens the habitat of southern resident killer whales, a federal judge ruled this week.

The Tulalip and Suquamish Tribes sued the Coast Guard last year over its adoption of a traffic-separation plan off the coast of Washington state.

The tribes say the Coast Guard did not consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service before adopting the plan. The “seven-fold increase” in oil tanker traffic en route to Canada threatens the southern resident killer whales, according to the lawsuit.

That particular group of killer whales, also called orcas, is the only population of killer whales protected under the Endangered Species Act.

There are fewer than 80 orcas in the population, and they spend a large part of each year in the waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Georgia Strait.

The tribes sought a court order requiring the Coast Guard to consult with the Fisheries Service on a new shipping traffic plan, with permanent measures to “ensure against jeopardy, prevent adverse modification of critical habitat, and minimize incidental take.”

“Killer whales are revered by our people. They are part of our ancestral marine ecology and continue to be very important to our culture. They now face their biggest threat to date: the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline,” Marie Zackuse, Tulalip Tribes chairwoman, said last year.

Plans to expand that 700-plus mile pipeline stretching from Alberta to British Columbia have been hotly protested by environmental activists, native groups and others.

Kinder Morgan, the company behind the $7.4 billion expansion, said this week that issues with permits will delay the start-up until December 2020.

Like others, the tribes in the lawsuit expressed concern that killer whales and other marine life will be threatened by the increased tanker traffic and the risk of oil spills.

The Coast Guard sought to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming there was no reasonably likely possibility of the kind of harm the tribes claim.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman disagreed in a 10-page order Wednesday.

“Plaintiffs need only plead that it was the Coast Guard’s inactivity that resulted in the failure to consult as mandated by the ESA [Endangered Species Act], not that the failure to consult is the ‘cause’ of the threats of oil spills and vessel strikes which are the type of ultimate negative outcomes that environmental consultation is intended to avert,” Pechman wrote.

She said the Coast Guard’s arguments “miss the point,” and that the tribes proved they have standing.

“The injury plead in plaintiffs’ complaint is a procedural injury – the failure to consult as required by the ESA – and the redress of that injury is: to consult,” Pechman wrote.

The tribes are represented by Earthjustice.

Last year, Washington state Rep. Kristine Lytton introduced a bill that would ban people from flying drones within 200 yards of a killer whale. There are already restrictions on keeping other vessels away from the animals.

Bradley Oliphant, who represents the Coast Guard, did not respond to a request for comment.

Source: Court House News.com

Bill to ban orca breeding filed in House faces pushback from SeaWorld

January 16, 2018

A bill that would outlaw the breeding and performing of killer whales in Florida has cleared the initial hurdle that kept it off the table last year: getting a lawmaker to file it in the first place.

In an effort to solidify a voluntary policy change SeaWorld made two years ago, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, introduced in the House of Representatives the Florida Orca Protection Act. It moved to the Natural Resources & Public Lands Subcommittee on Friday, but Moskowitz said he anticipates a fierce blowback from the marine park that could hinder progress.

“They had been out there trying to prevent the bill from getting filed by any representative,” he said. “If they hear the bill, members will vote for this, so (Sea World) is going to work to prevent it from being heard.”

Former Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, was interested in filing the bill in 2016 but changed her mind after meeting with SeaWorld officials, she confirmed. Representatives from the marine park met with Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, last month after he sent the bill to drafting. Their lack of support was clear, Diamond said.

SeaWorld, which owns six of the seven orcas in captivity in Florida, voluntarily changed its policy in 2016 to end breeding and phase out performing. But as the publicly traded company continues to bleed profits and visitors, advocates fear SeaWorld could reverse that policy at any time.

The organization’s leadership is also changing. Chinese investment firm Zhonghong Zhuoye Group acquired a 21 percent stake in the company in March, becoming the largest shareholder. Two Chinese executives now sit on SeaWorld’s board, one as chairman.

While SeaWorld’s attendance is on a decline, China’s aquarium industry is booming with 55 marine parks today and 27 under way, according to the China Cetacean Alliance. California passed a law identical to the Florida bill in 2016, making the killer whales there the last generation in captivity in the state.

SeaWorld keeps 10 orcas in San Diego, six in Orlando and five in San Antonio, Texas, parks. The only other orca in America is wild-born Lolita, brought to Miami Seaquarium in 1970. For decades, Lolita has lived alone in a tank just four times the length of her body.

“Sea World has come out and said they are going to do all this stuff and I applaud them, that’s fantastic news,” Moskowitz said. “I think it’s important we put it into law for them to hold them to their word and prevent future corporations from going into this business.”

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor said because the company has already committed to stop breeding orcas, “the legislation is unneeded and distracts from the great work being done to positively impact Florida’s wildlife.” He declined to comment on SeaWorld’s efforts to quash the bill.

Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Lindsay Larris said the pushback from SeaWorld suggests the company wants freedom to change the policy in the future, emphasizing the need for a law. On Feb. 5, the advocacy group will host a screening for lawmakers in Tallahassee of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which detailed the psychological and physical trauma of captivity and is credited with a massive shift in public attitudes about SeaWorld practices.

“We want to make sure this is really the last generation of orcas subjected to captivity, and we want to make sure Sea World is held accountable for the promise it made in 2016,” Larris said. “Doing it sooner rather than later will make sure no more orcas are born accidentally in captivity.”

Source: Tampa Bay.com

Scientists will test beached orca body found in Shetland

January 16, 2017

The dead orca was spotted at the uninhabited beach at Linga, with Scottish Natural Heritage later confirming that it was an adult.

Local manager Karen Hall said the organisation is keen to get samples from the whale to find out more about its death and to see if it was in a photo ID catalogue.

Staff from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme are also considering coming to Shetland from their base in Inverness to assess the orca.

It was discovered almost a year after one of the last nine remaining resident killer whales in the UK was found dead on a beach in the Inner Hebrides.

That orca, known to researchers as Lulu, was discovered beached on Tiree on January 3 last year.

Lulu was one of a pod of orcas that patrol the waters around the Hebrides and eastern Irish coast.

Scientists now believe there might be just eight animals remaining in the pod, the only resident orca community in British waters.

No calves have been born since researchers first began tracking the West Coast orcas in the 1980s, with some biologists claiming pollution in the water has led to high rates of infant mortality.

Scotland’s only resident family of killer whales seems doomed to die out.

The small, isolated population of five males and three females have never produced offspring since studies began, raising fears it faces imminent extinction.

Some killer whales have been discovered to regularly travel over 800 miles from Iceland each summer.

Source: Herald Scotland.com

Killer whale stops by Warrnambool

January 15, 2018

A woman got a surprise on Sunday evening after she spotted a killer whale, or orca, swimming in Warrnambool’s Lady Bay.

Lorrae Harding snapped photos on her phone from the breakwater.

Killer Whales Australia manager David Donnelly said sightings had been reported at both Warrnambool and Port Fairy, and he believed a group of the mammals had been travelling along the coast.

“When they’re in as close as they have been documented, as close as 150 metres off the beach, they might be hunting sting rays,” Mr Donnelly said.

He said group members would collect any images taken of the whales and compare them with those on file in the group’s catalogue, which contains records about sightings in recent years.

The Port Fairy sighting occurred just after 1pm on Sunday.

As soon as the first sighting was reported, the Killer Whales Australia Facebook group shared information to encourage others in the area to keep a look out.

Mr Donnelly said the group was a citizen science project, started in 1994 by a Warrnambool Deakin researcher.

“Basically it’s a citizen science project which receives no funding and we rely 100 per cent on members of community, fisherman or anybody who sees a killer whale and has a camera,” he said.

“We share all that info through social media to help people understand more about killer whales.

Source: Standard.net.au

Orca washed up near Walls

January 13, 2017


A DEAD orca has washed up on a beach on an island near Walls.

The marine animal was spotted at the uninhabited Linga on Thursday and Scottish Natural Heritage later confirmed that it was an adult.

Local manager Karen Hall said the organisation is keen to get samples from the whale to find out more about its death and to see if it was in a photo ID catalogue.

She said it was “quite unusual” to see a killer whale washed up on Shetland’s shores as they are used to being near land.

Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) staff are interested in coming to Shetland from their base in Inverness to assess the orca.

The group said on Facebook: “It is in a fresh condition and SMASS is going to attempt to get to the island to do a necropsy and hopefully establish the cause of death.

“This is a unique opportunity to learn more about these important members of the marine ecosystem, however given its location it is going to be logistically challenging and at this point in time we are unsure whether we will be able to get to the island at all.”

Source: shetnews.co.uk

Captive orca Lolita can stay at Miami aquarium: U.S. appeals court

January 12, 2018

A federal appeals court on Friday rejected efforts by animal rights advocates to force the Miami Seaquarium in Florida to release Lolita, a killer whale it has held in captivity for nearly half a century.

By a 3-0 vote, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Miami rejected claims by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and others that keeping Lolita in captivity violated the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The evidence, construed in the light most favorable to PETA, does not support the conclusion that the conditions of her captivity pose a threat of serious harm to Lolita,” the court said.

Friday’s decision upheld a lower court ruling. The lawsuit began in July 2015, two months after the National Marine Fisheries Service recognized whales such as Lolita as an endangered species.

PETA said it may appeal, and that the decision ignores current public sentiment about the suffering of captive orcas.

“This ruling sentences this highly intelligent, deeply lonely, and distressed orca to a lifetime of physical and psychological harm, confined to a tiny concrete cell without family, friends, or freedom,” Jared Goodman, director of animal law at the PETA Foundation, said in a statement.

The Seaquarium and its lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lolita, captured in 1970, is roughly 20 feet (6 meters) long and weighs about 8,000 pounds (3.6 tonnes), and has long been one the Seaquarium’s top attractions.

Critics raised 13 objections to her captivity, including the small size of Lolita’s tank, her lack of an orca companion since the death 38 years ago of her tank mate Hugo, stress and injuries caused by the white-sided dolphins she now lives with, and inadequate treatment by Seaquarium personnel.

But the appeals court said accepting critics’ “expansive” conception of illegal harm and harassment could upset the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulatory scheme to help ensure the humane treatment of captive animals used for exhibitions and research.

The Seaquarium kept Lolita after SeaWorld Entertainment Inc decided in 2016 to end its orca breeding programs and phase out killer whale shows.

A 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” had depicted the captivity and exhibition of killer whales as cruel.

The appeals court ruled nine days after Bob Barker, the former host of “The Price Is Right” game show and animal rights advocate, called for Lolita’s release in a video posted on PETA’s Twitter account.

Source: Reuters.com