A Captive Beluga May Have
Learned to Mimic Our Speech
Whales are smart. Or so we’ve been told since we began studying them, instead of killing them, in the 1960s. But a lot of the initial assumptions about cetaceans’ intelligence was based on brain size, and that’s no longer a reliable indication of cognition, scientists say.
Still, self-centered as we are, we’re always impressed when animals begin to sound like humans. The latest example is Noc, a San Diego Beluga whale, whose haunting speech-like pattern, a few octaves lower than his normal ‘voice,’ has been recorded and is all over the Web.
The recording was made by a National Marine Mammal Foundation team of researchers, as part of an online study published on Current Biology. It sounds like the animal was mocking his human handlers, but that’s reading too much in what’s essentially a mimicking exercise.
It took Noc some 16 years to produce what was caught on tape, something that the much smaller brain of a parrot, for example, would produce in just a few months. Still, it gives anyone pause. But before you grow too attached to the whale, a sad note: he died years ago.
SPEECH OR PARROTING?
For the record, cetaceans are indeed intelligent in ways we don’t quite comprehend, and communicate mainly by sounds through long distances in frequencies we can’t hear. Just like elephants and other species, these highly sociable animals seem to be well aware of, and slightly annoyed by, our presence.
In this context, the ability to emulate sounds, albeit striking, is not usually considered among the most indicative signs of cognition and self-awareness. Researchers have developed instead many other ways to gauge animal intelligence based on our own ability to communicate.
This approach has its advantages and short-comings, of course. But unlike brain size and other more explicit abilities displayed by animals, the true nature of their sensory reach remains elusive to us, even when some show seem to recognize themselves in the mirror, for example.
One of the biggest obstacles of learning from experiments designed to measure an animal’s mental power is our own innate desire to perceive them according to our own psychological makeup. That often prevents us from seeing them for what they truly are.
We now know, though, that there’s nothing more off the mark than to call someone a ‘bird brain.’ The navigation skills displayed by migrating flocks debunks any assumptions, based on human intelligence, that such skill must be managed by cerebral activity. They simply don’t have room up there.
Therefore, their astounding ability to orient themselves, and travel through great distances without getting lost, must be spread out throughout their entire biology. And that’s a branch of research still too rudimentary to give us any workable insights. Going back to whales, they also live in another medium: water.
Noc, the mocking Beluga, probably had no idea what he was accomplishing by imitating human speech pattern, or the turmoil that such skill would cause in the scientific community. Mysteriously, the whole thing lasted only a few years. Something must have clicked inside, for the whale stopped producing the curious sounds way before it died.
Clicks, by the way, are what ‘normal’ Beluga and other species of whales produce. Despite the well known and terrifyingly beautiful Humpback songs we all know, most of these mammals communicate literally under the radar. And who knows what else they do in the abyssal depths, where no human can stay for long?