NOC, the beluga who tried to talk

In the 1980s, the staff at San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) started to notice strange, speech-like sounds that were eventually traced to a young beluga named NOC. The whale’s trainers recorded his vocalizations. They also trained him to make the noises on cue to study how he did it, finding that making these noises required NOC to alter his vocal mechanics by inflating his vestibular sacs, which are in the nasal cavity and are used to stop water from entering the blowhole. 

An analysis of NOC’s vocalizations has now been published demonstrating that they were strikingly similar to human speech and also very atypical for belugas. Not only were the noises much lower in frequency (pitch) than typical beluga sounds, but the study demonstrated that the amplitude rhythm was also close in pattern to human conversation, as well as the presence of harmonics.

Belugas are known as the “canaries of the sea” for their seemingly incessant chatter – they produce loud clicks, whistles, and pulse sounds – and there have even been some stories of belugas ostensibly imitating human speech before. While he didn't necessarily succeed in "talking," NOC is the first beluga to have been shown through recording and analysis to produce sounds more like human speech than typical beluga calls, and to have done so spontaneously. NOC made the speech-like calls only when he was alone or with his human trainers, and not with the other whales he socialized with, and he stopped producing them altogether once he matured, but the demonstration of vocal learning in a whale is a captivating indication of the intelligence, curiosity, and social nature of marine mammals.

Listen to NOC’s vocalizations and get the full story here.

Photo by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr, Creative Commons License.

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