New research reveals human-like speaking ability in beluga whale
Nearly 30 years of research was revealed last week when neurobiologist Sam Ridgway went public with his evidence that a particular beluga whale had learned to make himself speak like a human. The revelation has caught the scientific community by surprise.
A beluga whale is making waves, years after his death, in a new article published last week in the scientific journal Current Biology.
Beluga whales are known as "canaries of the sea" because of their musical voices and talkative nature. Legend has it that sailors believed the songs of belugas were the voices of drowned men speaking from beneath the waves.
Noc, a beluga whale, learned to speak human words practically by himself and through years of training, his human handlers were able to train him to do so more often, produce recordings and analyze them. All of which led up to the publication last week of a report that set the scientific community on fire.
Neurobiologist Sam Ridgway, president of the national Marine Mammal Foundation, has been studying marine mammals, including what he calls "white whales," for almost 53 years. Back in 1984, he first started researching Noc's strange ability. But it's just now that he's going public with his argument that belugas are capable of imitating the speech patterns of humans.
It all traces back to a research facility in San Diego, where he was working with three belugas.
"One day, we started hearing noises, like a distant conversation on another pier," he recalled. "We didn’t think much of it because we thought it was a human conversation. But then, a diver who was using underwater communications equipment, got out of the water and said, ‘who told me to get out?’ and he was next to this whale’s pen and the dive supervisor had not said anything or told him to get out and now the only alternative was the whale."
Noc spent a lot of time with divers, trainers, and veterinarians. At some point, it seems, the white whale began to mimic the sounds he heard coming from his human caretakers.
These new noises were several octaves lower than his normal register. Noc learned how to over-inflate two air sacs above his nasal cavity — a behavior never before seen in beluga whales.
Ridgway doesn’t argue that Noc is saying real words, but there's no questioning that these noises are very different from normal beluga songs. Ridgway did a visual analysis of patterns in the whale’s speech. When viewed through a spectrogram, Noc’s voice patterns looked remarkably human.
"Who knows to what extent we can learn to communicate with these animals. We hope that others will take this up and do more rigorous work," he said.
Scientists still have a lot to learn about whale communication. Although Noc died five years ago, Dr. Ridgway hopes that the strange noises he created will inspire further research into these curious ocean creatures
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."