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San Diego Whale Mimics Human Speech

Aired 10/23/12 on KPBS News.

San Diego researchers have published recordings of a Beluga Whale imitating human speech.

— San Diego scientist Sam Ridgway is getting some attention for work he did decades ago.

Beluga Whale underwater
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Above: Beluga Whale underwater


Aired 10/22/12

Sound of a Beluga Whale recorded in San Diego in 1984.

The notoriety comes because of an article he published in the latest edition of the scientific journal Current Biology.

The research paper explored some audio recordings of a Beluga Whale in San Diego. The smallish whales were already known as noisy animals when Ridgway started working with marine mammals in San Diego Bay.

He worked with the Belugas and dolphins as part of a Navy research effort hoping to develop the mammals' underwater skills. The Navy was interested in developing their ability to detect and possibly disable mines.

Researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation were particularly struck by one whale's vocalizations, so they took the time to record it's voice. Ridgeway found the whale was clearly imitating the people it was in contact with because the pitch and amplitude patterns mimic human speech.

"This mimicry means they can learn something and they can learn to do this and they can go to a great deal of trouble to do it. But of course, the interesting thing would be the cognitive capabilities behind that," said Ridgway.

The recordings were made in 1984, but Ridgway said they didn't get published until now because there was lots of other research that took precedence. Ridgeway finally published the recordings after a colleague urged him to do it.

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