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Beluga whale shows ability to learn language like humans: research

Nack the beluga whale is pictured in this photo provided by Tsukasa Murayama of Tokai University.

A beluga whale in Japan has displayed the ability to memorize objects together with the sounds and symbols representing them, and make spontaneous matches, a team of Japanese researchers has announced.

    The discovery by scientists including Tsukasa Murayama of Tokai University is said to mark the first time this ability has been confirmed in a creature other than humans.

    "He remembered the names of objects in the same way that humans do. We've learned that beluga whales possess language ability close to that of humans," Murayama said.

    The researchers performed their experiments with a beluga whale named Nack at Kamogawa Sea World in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture. (Nack is estimated to be 32 years old.) The team trained him to voice a short, high-pitched call when he was shown a diving fin, or select a symbol representing an upside-down T at the sight of the fin. Then when he heard the sound and was shown the symbol, he was able to select the fin.

    After this, even though he had not been taught to associate the symbol with the sound, when researchers showed Nack the symbol, he made the short, high-pitched sound, and when he heard the same sound he selected the symbol.

    "Only people learn in this way," Maruyama said of the process. "Chimpanzees and parrots aren't able to do it."

    Nack was similarly able to learn sounds and symbols for three other objects: a diving mask, a bucket and a boot. During the experiments, the trainer's view was hidden to avoid giving Nack hints, and Nack was not rewarded with pieces of fish for his correct choices.

    Dolphins make sounds through their blowholes, not their mouths. Nack had gained attention in 2014 for being able to mimic eight phrases spoken by his trainer. However, at the time, he was merely repeating sounds like a parrot.

    "We can say that Nack understands the meaning of objects," Murayama said. "Next we want to try training him to remember verbs, and enable him to communicate with humans."

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