The Story of One Whale Who Tried to Bridge the Linguistic Divide Between Animals and Humans
While captive in a Navy program, a beluga whale named Noc began to mimic human speech. What was behind his attempt to talk to us?
We do not claim that our whale was a good mimic compared to such well-known mimics as parrots or myna birds,” Ridgway’s Current Biology paper concludes. “However, the sonic behavior we observed is an example of vocal learning by the white whale. It seems likely that Noc’s close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his human voice, as well as in its quality.”
Episodes of animal mimicry have long been dismissed as “mere parroting,” a disparagement that recent research on the intelligence of parrots and a number of species, including whales, reveals to be rather narrow-minded on our part.
Through a process known as “parallel evolution,” whales—some 55 million years our seniors—first developed a brain comparable to our far more recently evolved one. It’s a brain that has structures involved in functions such as self-recognition, memory, advanced socialization and language, enabling a fluency in some forever other and yet deeply parallel parlance.
“Vocal imitation, vocal learning, is a very sophisticated cognitive process,” says Lori Marino, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at Emory University who specializes in cetacean intelligence and brain evolution. “For an animal to imitate another species takes a level of self-awareness, a level of understanding of their body and your body and the acoustics of it. Manipulating one’s vocal tract to produce a desired effect is very, very sophisticated.”
“Yes, their brains are different,” Marino adds. “The cortex is completely different. And that’s what makes them so fascinating. The old line was that their brains are just these big masses of tissue for hearing, just giant audio receivers. But there’s so much integrative cortical tissue there that does more than just receive.
It brings things together, synthesizes and does complex processing in ways we obviously don’t understand yet. But it’s not as though we have this huge complex whale brain and no commensurately complex behavior. They are individuals. They have lives to lead and social relationships.
They have families, and they have really good memories. And that’s something places like SeaWorld don’t want to touch because then you start getting into issues that people can really relate to.”
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