Easily the best thing you'll hear all week: a beluga whale mimicking human speech

Holy warbling whales, this is GLORIOUS. For the first time ever, researchers have presented audio evidence of a cetacean (a beluga whale by the name of "NOC") spontaneously mimicking human speech. The recording featured below is 100% real, and it is amazing. Recorded by scientists a few years ago, it was just released online earlier today. Listen to it. You'll be impressed, and definitely entertained.

For decades, marine researchers have recounted tales of marine mammals like whales and dolphins imitating the cadence, tone and intonation of human speech. Indeed, dolphins have even been trained to do exactly this. But spontaneous human speech mimicry? That was a different story, and the lack of any audio evidence made confirmation of reports difficult to confirm or analyze.

No longer. Here is an example of spontaneous beluga human-speak, and it is unequivocally excellent:

ADORABLE. "Doop-dahdah-doooooooo!" Gets me every time.

The whale responsible for the surprisingly human-like noises was named NOC. For years, he was cared for by researchers at the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, California. NOC passed away back in 1999, but recordings of his vocalizations have provided researchers their first chance to investigate how a whale could make such human-like sounds.

According to marine researcher Sam Ridgway, the noises heard in the recording are not only unusual for a beluga, but — he suspects — somewhat difficult for NOC to produce.

"Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds," explained Ridgway — president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation and lead author on the paper describing the vocalizations, published in the latest issue of Current Biology. "The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale."

Pretty amazing, right? So is the story of how Ridgway and his colleagues first came to realize the vocalizations were coming from NOC in the first place. The researchers explain:

After seven years in our care... a white whale called NOC began, spontaneously, to make unusual sounds... Whale vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range for our understanding. These ‘conversations' were heard several times before the whale was identified as the source... The whale was exposed to speech not only from humans at the surface — it was [also] present at times when divers used surface-to-diver communication equipment.

The whale was recognized as the source of the speech-like sounds when a diver surfaced outside this whale's enclosure and asked "Who told me to get out?" Our observations led us to conclude the "out" which was repeated several times came from NOC.

Easily the best thing you'll hear all week: a beluga whale mimicking human speech

By attaching pressure sensors in and above NOC's nasal cavity, Ridgway and his colleagues were able to determine that the whale generated the sound by modulating air pressure inside his nasal tract, causing a structure known as "phonic lips" (labeled red in this diagram of a dolphin head) to vibrate and produce sounds similar to those produced by human vocal cords.

The ramifications of this study are numerous and far-reaching. We already know cetaceans to be remarkably intelligent creatures, and evidence for their capacity to mimic human speech opens up incredible opportunities in research ranging from human cognition to inter-species communication.

Of course, the mere fact that cetaceans are as clever as they are introduces a number of pressing moral considerations. Do we need a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans? To what extent does the scientific potential that these creatures hold justify their continued captivity?

The results of Ridgway and his team are published in the latest issue of Current Biology and can be accessed free of charge.

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