Talking Killer Whales? Gullible Science Journalists More Likely

February 7, 2018

The single most crucial concept needed for me to explain to anyone what my academic specialism is all about, obviously, is the notion of language. And I sometimes feel a twinge of despair at the fact that the general public simply does not get that concept. Any kind of putative transmission of information, or any animal or device uttering a noise that almost sort of sounds like a word, is spoken of as language.

A paper entitled “Form and Function in Human Song,” by Samuel Mehr and Manvir Singh of Harvard, appears in Current Biology. (Danger sign! Why a biology journal, for a paper on psychology and ethnomusicology?) And The Economist (online January 25, print January 27) cannot resist discussing it in terms suggestive of language, even though the topic is reactions to song snippets. The paper is alleged to offer “evidence that music does indeed permit the communication of simple ideas between people even when they have no language in common.” It does nothing of the kind. The researchers took a large number of music performances from around the globe, established that the people who produced them classified them as either dance music, lullabies, healing songs, or love songs, and then asked a thousand volunteers worldwide to categorize them from random 14-second clips to see if they could match the creators’ reports about the intended functions.

To open the article, The Economist chooses Hans Christian Andersen’s remark that “where words fail, music speaks.” Music must speak in very muffled tones, because the subjects’ ability to classify music samples showed that healing songs turned out to be statistically indistinguishable from lullabies, and love songs could not be distinguished from either lullabies or dance music. (The latter two are of course distinguishable: The paper comments that “lullabies tend to be rhythmically and melodically simpler, slower, sung by one female person, and with low arousal relative to other forms of music.” Quite so. I don’t think we needed a biology journal to tell us that.)

The claim that information transmission was demonstrated in the music is patently ridiculous. You might just as well say that food permits the communication of simple ideas between people, given that they will (I predict with confidence) be able to classify food into broad categories like soup, steak, salad, and dessert. Even when they have no language in common.

An even worse case of perverting the notion of speaking a language appeared in the same week, and got far more coverage. Proceedings of the Royal Society B published a paper entitled “Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca)” by José Z. Abramson, Maria Victoria Hernández-Lloreda, Lino García, Fernando Colmenares, Francisco Aboitiz, and Josep Call. It concerns the training of killer whales to imitate sounds, including the sound of human words.

Killer whale learns to talk,” said the Daily Mail in an online headline.

World’s first talking killer whale,” said the Daily Telegraph.

“A killer whale has been taught to talk human,” announced John Humphrys, a BBC radio news and politics broadcaster famous for his tough interviewing, his occasional grousing about “incorrect” English, and his $900K salary (soon to be partly reliquishedin the wake of a gender pay-discrepancy scandal).

Again, nothing of the sort has been accomplished. Recordings of the animal trying to use its blowhole to mimic a few words can be found here. Any self-respecting parrot would be furious to hear this medley of squeals, squawks, and raspberries referred to as imitated word pronunciations.

But just suppose for a moment that an orca could be trained to imitate the sounds of isolated English words like “hello” or “bye-bye” for a fishy reward. Describing this as “talking” would still be a shocking untruth. Attempted mimicking of uncomprehended noises to win food rewards is not language!

On most academic subjects you simply cannot talk arrant nonsense or tell direct lies about simple, basic things on a BBC news magazine program and get away with it. Put out a press release asserting that cats are in fact reptiles from Venus, and you won’t get a respectful BBC news program interview, with commentary from a herpetologist and an astronomer. Absurd claims on most topics don’t make it out of the starting gate. But when the topic is supposed to be language, the loony theses gallop off down the course, cheered by thousands.

I was cheered to learn that comedians are harder to fool than science reporters. NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me mocked the killer-whale story mercilessly (Mark Liberman supplies a recording on Language Log here).


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.”


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

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, there are around 3,000 whales and dolphins held in aquariums, zoos and marine parks globally.


French marine park challenges ban on breeding killer whales and dolphins

May 11, 2017

 French marine park plans to fight a newly introduced ban on breeding killer whales and dolphins in captivity, saying that putting it into practice could be cruel.

The ban was announced last week as part of government attempts to improve the living conditions of captive marine mammals in marine parks.

It mirrors 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.

Jon Kershaw, Wildlife Director at Antibes’ Marineland in southern France, told Reuters TV that the new law communicated by the environment ministry on Saturday could hurt the animals.

“To impose this law, and I am talking about imposing, on the animals, we will have to put them under stress. We will separate them. We will give them chemical treatments for fear of them reproducing. I am sure that this will have an effect on the animals’ life expectancy, so it’s not normal, it’s not logical to establish on the one hand a decree made for protecting animals, and on the other hand harming them like that. I don’t understand,” he said.

He said he intended to fight against implementation of the law, first by establishing what legal action can be taken and by launching petitions.

French activist Caroline Camus of ‘Sans Voix PACA,’ an organization in the Provence, Alpes Cote d’Azur (PACA) region whose name translates as ‘Those without a voice’, disagrees with Kershaw.

She said the new law was a good way to bring this type of captivity to an end and explore releasing some remaining captive dolphins into the Mediterranean Sea.

“There are huge possibilities,” she said.

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


France bans breeding killer whales in captivity

May 7, 2017

France on Saturday banned the breeding in captivity of dolphins and killer whales under tighter rules that campaigners hope will eventually herald the end of shows involving the animals.

Environment Minister Segolene Royal had on Wednesday signed a version of the legislation introducing “tight controls on the reproduction of dolphins”, her ministry said in a statement.

But she has since decided the rules need to be “more radical”, her ministry told AFP on Saturday, particularly after learning that “some animals were drugged” in aquariums.

The new rules ban the captivity of all whales, dolphins and porpoises, except for orcas and bottlenose dolphins already held in authorised aquariums.

Animal rights activists hailed the ban as a “historic French advance”.

“In plain terms, this means the end of breeding, exchange and import programmes,” five conservation groups including One Voice and Sea Shepherd said in a joint statement.

“Without possible replenishment, this quite simply means the scheduled end of marine circuses on our territory.”

But the move sparked anger from Jon Kershaw, head of the Marineland Antibes dolphin show park in southern France, who told the Var-Matin newspaper it was a “bombshell” for establishments like his.

The new rules notably also require “an increase of at least 150 percent of pools to allow the animals to live in less proximity from visitors and other animals”, the ministry said, as well as banning chlorine in treating the water.

Direct contact between the animals and the public is also now forbidden.

Water parks and aquariums have six months to conform to the new rules, and a three-year deadline for expanding their pools.

Parks such as Marineland Antibes – the biggest attraction of its kind in Europe – have faced growing criticism in recent years over their animals’ living conditions.


Legal action against French marine park over orcas

Sunday March 27, 2016

An employee trains orcas at Marineland on the C​​ôte d’Azur

Environmental campaigners have said they are taking legal action against a French marine park over the treatment of its orca whales and other animals after a number were killed during a storm.

Marineland in Antibes reopened a week ago after suffering severe damage indeadly storms that struck the Côte d’Azur in southern France in October.

Many animals and fish at the park died, including Valentin, a 19-year-old orca that succumbed to internal injuries a week later.

The park was deluged with mud, killing sharks, sea lions and turtles, because it was left without electricity to pump in clean water.

Sea Shepherd, an international NGO, organised a protest attended by about 250 people outside the park on Sunday. It said the orca enclosures remained highly unsatisfactory and that the animals should never have been subjected to such danger.

Its founder, Paul Watson, said: “We are against the keeping of orca whales in captivity because it is simply not where they should be.”

There has been growing global opposition to keeping orcas, also known as killer whales, in captivity, particularly since the release in 2013 of Blackfish, a documentary on the treatment of orcas at SeaWorld in the US.

SeaWorld announced earlier this month that it would no longer breed captive orcas and that the current generation would effectively be its last.

Sea Shepherd has lodged a legal complaint against Marineland, claiming that the park mistreats its animals and pollutes the local environment. The NGO expects a first hearing to be held in September.

The park denies charges of mistreatment and said in a statement on Sunday that “the conditions of wellbeing of the marine mammals are carefully and strictly controlled by several organisations, as well as European and international regulations.”

Marineland is already subject to a preliminary investigation following complaints of animal cruelty by three French NGOs.

Source: The Guardian

Marineland Antibes Reopens

March 21, 1916

© Reuters

An animal park in Southern France reopened its doors this Monday, March 21, five months after the terrible weather that caused many deaths among its animals. He was then the subject of various scandals: the death of a killer whale and watercourse pollution accusations surrounding (and therefore also the basins of the park). In addition, the current climate is rather tense for animal shows and captivity of orcas.

Marineland was therefore forced some changes. The new director of the park, Arnaud Palu states “this opening is an opportunity for a fresh start with three essential missions: conservation, education and research.” A teaching team is dedicated to the public “The idea is simple: to ensure that people who come here leave in aillant learned something.”, Adds the director.

A complete overhaul of all the performances with animals was performed. “The performances are based much more on the emotional, with fairly powerful music. We will discover the animal through closer behavior of their behavior in the wild,” explains Arnaud Palu.

A soundtrack different does enough happiness to these captive animals?


Marineland France vows to continue breeding

Marineland Antibes vows to continue breeding in light of SeaWorld’s announcement to end their breeding program.

Marineland Antibes had been working with SeaWorld to breed their sole breeding female, Wiki, with SeaWorld males using A.I. technology. Wiki’s first calf, Moana, was conceived by A.I. using sperm from Ulises, an adult male at SeaWorld California.

Marineland is still closed after storms flooded the park with mud several months ago. They lost Wiki’s half brother Valintin shortly after the storm October 12, 2015. That leaves Antibes with one female and three related males, her brother Inouk and two sons Moana and Keijo. To continue breeding their whales Antibes would have to either potentially inbreed their whales or work with other parks to swap genetic material for A.I.

Hopefully SeaWorld’s end on breeding will include a stop to sharing of genetic material with other parks. That leaves only one option for Marineland, to work with Kamogawa SeaWorld. There are still the Russian caught orca in China and Russia but it is doubtful they will be trained in A.I. any time soon. The whales in China aren’t even on display yet.

Source: British Divers Marine life Rescue