According to an international team of biologists, an Asian elephant named Koshik can imitate human speech.
“Human speech basically has two important aspects, pitch and timbre,” said Dr Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna, lead author of a paper in the journal Current Biology.
“Intriguingly, the elephant Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns: he accurately imitates human formants as well as the voice pitch of his trainers. This is remarkable considering the huge size, the long vocal tract, and other anatomical differences between an elephant and a human.”
Koshik’s vocabulary consists of exactly five Korean words: “annyong” (“hello”), “anja” (“sit down”), “aniya” (“no”), “nuo” (“lie down”), and “choah” (“good”).
“For one thing,” Dr Stoeger said, “elephants have a trunk instead of lips. While their large larynx can produce very low-pitched sounds, Koshik’s speech mimicry exactly copies the pitch and other characteristics of his human trainers’ voices. A structural analysis of Koshik’s speech showed not just clear similarities to human voices, but also clear differences from the usual calls of elephants.”
There have been some earlier reports of vocal mimicry in both African and Asian elephants. African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of truck engines, and a male Asian elephant living in a zoo in Kazakhstan was said to produce utterances in both Russian and Kazakh, but that case was never scientifically investigated.
It’s not completely clear why Koshik adopted his unusual vocal behavior, but the researchers suggest that it might go back to his days as a juvenile. Koshik was the only elephant living at the Everland Zoo in South Korea for about five years, during an important period for elephant bonding and development. Humans were his only social contacts.
“We suggest that Koshik started to adapt his vocalizations to his human companions to strengthen social affiliation, something that is also seen in other vocal-learning species – and in very special cases, also across species,” Dr Stoeger said.
Koshik’s language skills may provide important insights into the biology and evolution of complex vocal learning, an ability that is critical for human speech and music.
Bibliographic information: Angela S. Stoeger et al. An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech. Current Biology, published online 01 November 2012; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.022