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Whale discovered making remarkably human sounds

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
October 23rd, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Beluga whales are known as "canaries of the sea" due to their frequent, high-pitched calls. Now, U.S. researchers have been surprised to discover a beluga whale whose vocalizations were remarkably close to human speech. Scientists have since heard a nine-year-old whale named NOC that make sounds octaves below normal, in clipped bursts.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - While dolphins have been taught to mimic the pattern and durations of sounds in human speech, no animal on earth have attempted such mimicry.

The researchers were able to outline just how NOC did it - but the first mystery was figuring out where the sound was coming from.

A diver at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in California surfaced saying, "Who told me to get out?" the researchers there knew they had another example on their hands.

There have been a number of anecdotal reports have described whales making human-like speech, none had ever been recorded. Once they identified NOC as the source, they recorded it on tape.

They found that vocal bursts averaged about three per second, with pauses reminiscent of human speech. Analysis of the recordings showed that the frequencies within them were spread out into "harmonics" in a way very unlike whales' normal vocalizations and more akin to those of humans.

NOC was rewarded for the speech-like sounds. The whale was then taught to make them on command and fitted him with a pressure transducer within his nasal cavity, where sounds are produced, to monitor just what was going on.

They found that the whale was able to rapidly change the pressure within his nasal cavity to produce the sounds.

To amplify the comparatively low-frequency parts of the vocalizations, he over-inflated what is known at the vestibular sac in his blowhole, which is used to stop water from entering the lungs.

It was learned that the mimicry was no easy task for NOC.

"Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds," Sam Ridgway, president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation and lead author of the report said.

"The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale."

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