Let Us Now Praise Talking Elephants

Another week, another talking animal. Just last week I wrote about NOC, the beluga whale that had learned to mimic the sound of human voices. Now we get a report of an Asian elephant who has learned the same trick.

The elephant, Koshik, has figured out how to imitate the language of his Korean trainers and can pronounce five different Korean words: annyong (hello), choah (good), aniya (no), nuo (lie down), and anja (sit down).

The researchers write:

Koshik’s precise imitation of the acoustic characteristics of his trainers is remarkable, given that the long vocal tract of an elephant would naturally produce much lower formant frequencies. Koshik creates these accurate imitations of human formant frequencies by placing his trunk tip into his mouth …  at the onset of phonation… During phonation, he raises the lower jaw while keeping the trunk inside the mouth, thus modulating the shape of his vocal tract.

The scientists also probe the origins of Koshik’s vocal learning, pointing out that for seven years, Koshik lived a solitary life; between the ages of 5 and 12, he was the only elephant living at the zoo. They speculate:

[T]he determining factors for speech imitation in Koshik may be social deprivation from conspecifics during an important period of bonding and development when humans were the only social contact available … The social circumstances under which Koshik’s speech imitations developed suggest that one function of vocal learning might be to cement social bonds and, in unusual cases, social bonds across species.

Watch a video of Koshik “speaking” with his trainer.


ResearchBlogging.orgStoeger et al., An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech, Current Biology (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.022

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