Science News

Can Koshik the elephant talk?

Sun, 4th Nov 2012

Kat Arney

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Dumbo the elephant may have been able to fly, but he was fictional. Now a team of German, US, Korean and Sri Lankan researchers believe that they may have found an elephant that can talk – or at least make vocal sounds that convincingly resemble human speech.

Asian ElephantThis talemted animal is called Koshik, a 22 year old asian elephant who was born in captivity and moved to Everland Zoo in South Korea when he was just three years old, though he has been the only elephant in the zoo since 1995. Writing in the journal Current Biology this month, Angela Stoeger and her colleagues, recorded clips of Koshik making unusual noises which his trainers thought sounded like Korean words, and played them to 16 different native Korean speakers, to see if they could pick out which words he was apparently saying. The scientists found that Koshik can imitate at least 5 Korean words pretty well, including hello (“annyong”), no (“aniya”) and  sit down (“anja”), although his vowel sounds are much better than his consonants.

How's he making these noises – elephant mouths are quite different from our own, aren't they?

An elephant's mouth is very different from our own, and their vocal tract is much longer than ours. To imitate the sound of human speech, Koshik puts the tip of his trunk into his mouth to change the shape of his vocal tract – something that's never been seen in an elephant before. And the only other animals that are known to change their vocal tracts in this way are orangutans, who use their hands or leaves to change the sounds they can make.

Why would animals imitate human speech? Are there any other animals that can do this?

This is the first documented example of an elephant mimicking human speech -although there are unconfirmed reports of an elephant in Kazakhstan that could “say” Russian and Kazakh words - there are a few other animals that can imitate speech. Two obvious examples are Mynah birds and parrots, but there's also the case of Hoover the seal, who was taught human phrases by a fisherman, and Logosi the beluga whale who could say his name. Interestingly, attempts to teach chimps to imitate human speech have mostly failed, even though their vocal apparatus is similar to our own, suggesting that it's not the equipment that an animal has that's important for mimicking human speech, but something to do with the way their sound perception and production pathways are wired up to the brain. 

As to why animals might imitate human speech, it's hard to know. The researchers suggest that the fact that Koshik was reared in captivity, and has been the only elephant in the zoo for a long time may have something to do with it. In the wild, animals including elephants mimic each other's vocal sounds as part of forming social bonds and groups, so maybe Koshik is just trying to bond with his keepers.

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