Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

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Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby barracuda » Thu Oct 25, 2012 6:51 pm



The truth behind Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech

Media outlets are gushing over a newly released paper published by the National Marine Mammal Foundation about Noc, a beluga whale with the ability to spontaneously mimic human speech. Few of the reports however, address Noc's unfortunate history.

The paper published by the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) in the scientific journal Current Biology said in a press release that Noc's vocalizations, "sheds light on the ability of marine mammals to spontaneously mimic human speech ... presumably a result of vocal learning."

Noc's mimicry was apparently so convincing, it fooled a diver into thinking someone was shouting at him to get out of the water, U.S. researchers have revealed. Once the whale was identified as the source NMMF said, "Scientists recorded his speech-like episodes both in air and underwater, studying the physiology behind his ability to mimic."

According to NMMF:

    It’s believed that the animals close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his ‘human’ voice, as well as in its quality.

Belugas are highly social cetaceans. According to Marine Bio.org, they are "very gregarious, tending to travel in groups of between 2-15 individuals, with very tight mother/calf associations."

From the Marine Mammal Inventory Report (below) and statistics at Ceta-Base.com, Noc was captured in Manitoba on August 4th 1977 at an estimated two years of age by the U.S. Navy. The Navy did not directly catch the beluga, they delegated this role to an Inuit hunter whom they hired to jump on Noc's back and lasso the whale into submission.

Noc was captured with two other belugas, Churchill and Muk Tuk. All three marine mammals were absorbed into U.S. Navy's marine mammal program in San Diego, CA. Muk Tuk was eventually transferred to SeaWorld California in 2001 and subsequently died. Churchill remained with the Navy dying of pneumonia in 1985, as did Noc who succumbed to aspergillus encephalitis in 1999.

NPR's Christopher Joyce was one of the first to break the newly released study on the talking beluga. Strangely though, Joyce wrote that Noc "lived to be 30 and died five years ago." Yet clearly in the MMIR (seen above), Noc is reported as having died in 1999 at the age of 24 years.

Whether this was a genuine mistake by Joyce, or if this information was gathered from those he interviewed I am currently attempting to clarify, but it doesn't appear that NMMF has any problem with the error, as they have yet to dispute or correct the report. Considering belugas can live into their 50s and beyond in the wild, perhaps this isn't surprising?

Life for belugas once they were conscripted involuntarily into the U.S. Navy was a closeted affair and much of it is classified. But there are some reports available for viewing, such as this one entitled "Secret Weapon," written by David Pugliese of The Scotsman.

Pugliese described how both Noc and Muk were recruited with the Canadian government’s approval, into a U.S. Navy secret military animal programme in 1977:

    The navy’s marine-mammal programme became arguably one of the most controversial of the US military’s Cold War research projects. Bowers and Ridgway played key roles in the programme, which at its peak in the 1980s had more than 130 mammals in its ranks, including six Canadian belugas. The programme was dogged by allegations of animal abuse and rumours that docile underwater creatures were being trained to kill - accusations that navy officials deny to this day.

Alexandra Morton was just 22-years-old and a new whale biologist when she first went to work with biologist Sam Ridgway. Morton, who worked with the Navy's dolphins claimed that Ridgway et al conducted:

    Very invasive brain research, which was interesting from a science point of view, but they had to restrain the animals and put probes right through their brain tissue. I was pretty shocked.

Muk was eventually trained "to dive to great depths to recover valuable experimental torpedoes" adds Pugliese, and both she and Noc were used in experiments at Nanoose Bay in Canada at a weapons-testing range east of Vancouver Island.

In the 90s, Ridgway piloted a program called 'Deep Hear,' which involved discerning how sensitive a beluga's hearing actually was. The Navy had developed an underwater surveillance system called low-frequency active sonar or LFAS. At a cost of $350 million dollars, LFAS could "track enemy submarines at far greater distances than ever before, and especially in shallow waters close to shore," reported Pugliese.

But the sonar was so loud, it was determined to have a detrimental effect on whales at all depths.

Wesley R. Elsberry describes the program in more detail at his website, The Austringer. Elsberry said he worked directly with Muk on the Deep Hear program. These studies were federally funded and can be found in this government document for the year 1997 (page 88):

    Ridgway, S. H. (SPAWAR Systems Center, San Diego US Navy) Isolating Delphinoid Pulse Groupings (97PR03048); $118.1K

    Support for Sea Lion Deep Hear Project (97PR07780) $32K

    Prediction of Acoustic Safety Criteria for Marine Mammals (97PROI957) $300K

Sam Ridgway the pilot of the Deep Hear project co-authored the new paper on Noc that was released by NMMF this week. But considering these studies were conducted in the 80s, why is the paper just being released now? According to Ridgway, he told NPR's Joyce, that he would have done it earlier, but thought a talking whale was a "side issue."

Orca Network's Howard Garrett feels that there is something fishy going on. He told Digital Journal:
Funny this would get published just when the industry is trying to import 18 belugas.

On June 15, the Georgia Aquarium applied to NOAA for a permit to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia. The move caused an outcry from both conservation groups and members of the public disgusted by the potential importation, making it one of the most contested permits in over a decade.

But here is where it gets really interesting.

Of the 18 imported belugas from Russia, some will go to directly to SeaWorld San Diego. And the National Marine Mammal Foundation is currently in collaboration with SeaWorld San Diego to offer a one-year veterinary internship in aquatic animal medicine and research, right alongside the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program.

Ridgway appears to offer a hint of the intention in a statement directly beneath the video of Noc's mimicry, which can be viewed above or on NMMF's YouTube page. In it, he writes:

    While it's been a number of years since we first encountered this spontaneous mimicry, it's our hope that publishing our observations now will lead to further discoveries about marine mammal learning and vocalization. How this unique 'mind' interacts with other animals, humans and the ocean environment is a major challenge of our time.

Of course it could all be a remarkable coincidence but Garrett's not buying it. "I really do think the story of the talking beluga is a PR stunt meant to give support to the idea that captivity is necessary to do research," he said.
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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby Elvis » Thu Oct 25, 2012 9:55 pm

barracuda wrote:



Wow---if that's a dolphin talking---woW. A little spooky. It sounds like it's talking or trying to talk. Of course the scientists assume it's only mimicry, which it very well could be. But consider the following:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetacean_intelligence
The brain to body mass ratio (as distinct from encephalization quotient) in some members of the odontocete superfamily Delphinoidea (dolphins, porpoises, belugas, and narwhals) is second only to modern humans, and greater than all other mammals (there is debate whether that of the treeshrew might be second).


Brain size doesn't necessarily determine intelligence, but certainly goes a long way. Plus,

The discovery of spindle cells (neurons without extensive branching, known also as "von Economo neurons", or VENs) in the brains of the humpback whale, fin whale, sperm whale, killer whale,[14][15] bottlenose dolphins, Risso's dolphins, and beluga whales[16] is another unique discovery. Humans, the great apes, and elephants are the only other species known to have spindle cells,[17](p242) species all well known for their high intelligence. Spindle neurons appear to play a central role in the development of intelligent behavior. Such a discovery may suggest a convergent evolution of these species.
!!

Supporting the mimicry explanation, one researcher says "dolphins are unsurpassed in imitative abilities among nonhuman animals."

Besides imitation, though, dolphins seem to like making art:

Dolphins are known to engage in complex play behavior, which includes such things as producing stable underwater toroidal air-core vortex rings or "bubble rings".[33] There are two main methods of bubble ring production: rapid puffing of a burst of air into the water and allowing it to rise to the surface, forming a ring; or swimming repeatedly in a circle and then stopping to inject air into the helical vortex currents thus formed. The dolphin will often then examine its creation visually and with sonar. They also appear to enjoy biting the vortex-rings they've created, so that they burst into many separate normal bubbles and then rise quickly to the surface.


But language? Yes!

While there is little evidence for dolphin language, experiments have shown that they can learn human sign language. Akeakamai, a bottlenose dolphin, was able to understand both individual words and basic sentences like "touch the frisbee with your tail and then jump over it" (Herman, Richards, & Wolz 1984). Dolphins have also exhibited the ability to understand the significance of the ordering of each set of tasks in one sentence.



Then there's John C. Lilly:

In the 1980s he directed a project which attempted to teach dolphins a computer-synthesised language. Lilly designed a future "communications laboratory" that would be a floating living room where humans and dolphins could chat as equals and where they would develop a common language.
He envisioned a time when all killing of whales and dolphins would cease, "not from a law being passed, but from each human understanding innately that these are ancient, sentient earth residents, with tremendous intelligence and enormous life force. Not someone to kill, but someone to learn from."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_C._Lilly


Twice, I've heard my cat say my name, clear as a bell. First time when she was young, and very polysyllabic, sometimes jabbering away excitedly; one such string of kitty-gibberish ended with my name. Then a couple of years ago I was puttering in the kitchen and she enunciated it again. No really!

I'm tempted to think that if I listen to that dolphin recording over, I might detect some English.
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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby Nordic » Fri Oct 26, 2012 1:10 am

Sounds like it's singing. Through a kazoo.
"Whatever deceives men seems to produce a magical enchantment." -- Plato
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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby barracuda » Fri Oct 26, 2012 1:00 pm

Elvis wrote:It sounds like it's talking or trying to talk. Of course the scientists assume it's only mimicry, which it very well could be.


Just as a comparison, here's some non-english speaking humans imitating english speech, specifically the American idiom.







But the closest analog I can find to the short "speech" of the beluga can be heard in the song "Chacarron Macarron" by Panamanian artists Rodney Clark and Andy De La Cruz. Compare the sound of the "lyric" at the 00:15 second mark with Noc's vocalizations:



It's damn near identical.
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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby Allegro » Fri Oct 26, 2012 10:17 pm

Those scientists are telling us that that beluga is mimicking or imitating human speech? Is that what we’ve heard in the vid? Some but not all scientists may wish to expand their training and their vocabularies, just a tad.

Excerpt from the press release.

    “…(Most of NOC’s spontaneous mimicry of human speech sounds like mumbled conversation rather than clearly understandable words.)”

If the beluga is mimicking what it’s heard from a human, and what we’re hearing from the beluga is a melody line, then why aren’t the scientists or their writers using the word, oh, let’s think about it for a while… music. Isn’t the beluga translating human sounds into sounds for its own natural vocalization? I would think. Or have I missed something?

Thoughts?

And, what’s the final sound the whale makes in the video? (Is it a kind of horse’s nicker, or blow, or snort?) I don’t know.

As best I can tell, El Mudo is singing a harmonic minor scale with E as its base.

Thats my take :bigsmile.

:thumbsup for barracuda and nordic,
if you don’t mind me saying.
Last edited by Allegro on Sat Oct 27, 2012 8:27 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby barracuda » Sat Oct 27, 2012 1:54 am

I'm beginning to suspect Noc may have learned a military march during some period of his conscription. HIs song reminds me a bit of an excerpt from Sousa's Semper Fidelis.

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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby Allegro » Sat Oct 27, 2012 8:35 am

^^^ barracuda wrote:...HIs song reminds me a bit of an excerpt from Sousa's Semper Fidelis.
I hadn’t heard it! That was so obvious, I laughed out loud.
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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby Elvis » Sat Oct 27, 2012 8:47 am

I just had to try this, so I borrowed a "beat" and some pictures. This even has girls. Maybe I have too much time on my hands.

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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby barracuda » Sat Oct 27, 2012 12:39 pm

I love it, but it needs more cowbell blowhole.
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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby Allegro » Sat Oct 27, 2012 10:29 pm

Elvis wrote:I just had to try this, so I borrowed a "beat" and some pictures. This even has girls. Maybe I have too much time on my hands.
The final blowhole in Beluga Blues, at the near finish of the fade, is very clever. Just enough emphasis I matched with a surprised giggle.
Love the video. Thanks :basicsmile, Elvis.

barracuda wrote:I love it, but it needs more cowbell blowhole.
Noted. Noted.
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Re: Noc, the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

Postby Elvis » Sun Oct 28, 2012 6:33 am

Allegro wrote:
Elvis wrote:I just had to try this, so I borrowed a "beat" and some pictures. This even has girls. Maybe I have too much time on my hands.
The final blowhole in Beluga Blues, at the near finish of the fade, is very clever. Just enough emphasis I matched with a surprised giggle.
Love the video. Thanks :basicsmile, Elvis.

barracuda wrote:I love it, but it needs more cowbell blowhole.
Noted. Noted.


Haha, thanks. I turned up the blowhole on all the repeating "stanzas" as a sort of motif.
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