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Whale learned to mimic human speech; demonstrating free will among intelligent animals

Saturday, November 03, 2012 by: PF Louis
Tags: whales, human speech, free will

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(NaturalNews) In 1984, marine biologist Sam Ridgeway and others kept thinking there was murmuring coming from the whale and dolphin tank at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California.

The sounds they heard from the tank resembled humans talking at a distance, thus impossible to understand. Then one day later, a diver emerged from the tank demanding to know, "Who told me to get out?"

Ridgeway and others at the marine foundation finally understood where the murmuring was coming from. They determined that one of the whales in the tank, a male beluga white whale named NOC, was a talker. NOC had been in captivity among humans for some time after being captured in the wild.

It was known that dolphins could be trained to imitate human speech. But NOC had not received any speech training or coaching. Up until then, only anecdotal incidents of whale speech resembling humans was available, such as a report from caretakers at the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, Canada hearing one of the white whales say its name.

Ridgeway and his team recorded NOC's sounds and speech patterns over the next four years to offer scientific proof that a marine mammal could speak after overcoming physical handicaps.

Whales lack a larynx. Their high pitched squeals are accomplished by combining their nasal cavities and blow holes. It was determined that the pitch NOC used for speaking was well below the normal high pitch squeals whales and dolphins use to communicate with each other.

According to Ridgeway, "Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds. Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact."

A whale or dolphin in marine captivity does come into contact with caretakers directly when they surface. Those caretakers will shout out commands or call their names.

Water carries sound well, so even below the surface, a whale or dolphin can hear caretakers talking above the surface or observers talking while gazing through an aquarium glass wall.

Motivation for contact, you say

Whales and dolphins are cetaceans, very social marine mammals that hang together in extended family-like pods over long periods of time. They are predatory, but most feed on much smaller fish.

Only the large black and white six ton orca or killer whale, nicknamed the wolf of the sea, is feared by all other sea life, even larger whales. Unlike orcas, the all white beluga whales are not as aggressive or as large.

All cetaceans are incredible swimmers capable of traveling long distances of 100 miles at at time with speeds up to 50 kilometers per hour and rapidly diving several hundred meters deep.

Their natural habitat and behavior allows them to do what they are physiologically meant to do, in pods among others with whom they have bonded over time. Aquarium keepers dismiss these characteristics as unimportant in captivity because they're fed and don't need to hunt in pods as they do in the wild.

But two characteristics observed among many cetaceans in captivity, including orcas, defy those claims. One is the drooped dorsal fin. Many of them will exhibit a dorsal fin that droops to one side or the other, almost like a dog dragging its tail. This could be a sign of depression.

The depression and lack of mobility also manifests in much shorter life spans. For example, a beluga whale in the wild can live for 60 years, but in captivity they rarely survive past 20 years. NOC died in captivity at the age of 30. Maybe he was trying to say "get me outta here" when the diver heard "get out."

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