November 1, 2012 | 1
Upstaged spectacularly by a young Beluga whale that can sort of speak human, an Asian elephant named Koshik can also imitate human speech, but in Korean, using his trunk.
Captive-born in 1990 and transferred to South Korea’s Everland Zoo three years later, Koshik lived with two female Asian elephants for a couple of years before being kept completely alone for the following seven years. During this time, he showed a keen interest in learning several spoken commands, and by August 2004, when he was 14 years old and about to reach sexual maturity, his trainers noticed that he was attempting to imitate their speech.
It’s not known if this was the first time Koshik imitated human speech, or if he’d started doing it earlier and his trainers hadn’t noticed, but there’s a good chance the reason he had started was because, for a long period of time during his formative years, the only social interaction he had was with humans.
Isolation from conspecifics has led to speech intimation in a number of unlikely animals, such as Hoover the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) from Maine, who in 1976 showed an ability to imitate human speech. Hoover was found as an orphaned cub, and was hand-reared by locals before being transferred at three months old to the New England Aquarium. Here he shared an exhibit pool with other harbour seals, but he was the oldest male for most of his life.
A study on harbour seal vocalisations, led by senior research zoologist Katherine Ralls from the Smithsonian National Zoo, described Hoover’s bizarre behaviour once he hit two years old. Keep in mind that harbour seals are generally considered to be pretty quiet animals:
“Hoover’s development was unremarkable until the summer of 1973, when he began to display “spasms,” “shaking,” and “raspy breathing.” This continued in 1974 along with “chest slapping,” “strange cries,” and “raspy, growling sounds.” Hoover was ill during some of this period, exhibiting congestion, vomiting, dehydration, and weight loss, and much of his strange behavior was thought to be associated with his illness. However, several observers noted in the files that he seemed to stage “attacks” to gain human attention. In 1975, Hoover was extremely vocal, particularly in May, June, and July, and in 1976 he exhibited sexual behavior for the first time. In August 1976, an observer noted that Hoover made sounds “as if talking.” He continued to make “new noises” and developed a “blood-curdling scream” in 1977.”
A year later, Hoover was observed to say his own name, and following that, his repertoire of word-like sounds increased to include “Hello”, “Hello there,” “How are you” and “Get out of there”. Like Koshik, the research team suspected that isolation at the right time could have prompted the behaviour: “Hoover was raised away from conspecifics at an early and possibly critical stage of his life with respect to imprinting,” they wrote in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, noting that his ‘strange’ behavior in his youth could have been normal for male harbour seal reaching sexual maturity. “After reaching sexual maturity, he mimicked several human vocalisations. Some birds mimic human speech only when exposure to human speech is combined with a close social relationship with a human caretaker; therefore, Hoover’s mimicry possibly is related to his close social ties with humans.”
Hoover was apparently better at his vowels than his consonants. And the possibility that he was a shape-shifting daedra cannot be ruled out because he reportedly had a Boston accent. He also tended to slur his words together like a drunk.
The researchers suggested that seeing as a number of marine mammal species, such as a bottlenose dolphin, beluga whales and humpback whales, had been observed to imitate sounds, vocal learning might be more common in marine animals than terrestrial animals. But that didn’t stop Koshik. With no lips to create sounds the same way we do, he instead has to place his trunk in his mouth and move his jaw up and down to control the shape of his vocal tract as he vocalises – something that has never been seen before. This is pretty remarkable because even apes, our closest living relatives, cannot be taught to imitate human speech.
Koshik’s trainers told a team of researchers, led by Angela Stoeger from the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, that he could imitate six Korean words including ‘‘annyong’’ (‘‘hello,’’), ‘‘anja’’ (‘‘sit down,’’), ‘‘aniya’’ (‘‘no’’), ‘‘nuo’’ (‘‘lie down,’’), and ‘‘choah’’ (‘‘good,’’). They tested 47 recordings of these words as spoken by Koshik on 16 Korean native speakers. The test subjects weren’t told the spelling or meaning of the words, and just like the trainers, they matched Koshik’s imitations to the correct words. Koshik had not only perfected the sounds of words to render himself so convincing, but also the pitch and timbre patterns of human speech. Like Hoover, he was good at vowels, but not so much consonants. And it’s pretty unlikely that he actually knows the meaning of what he’s saying.
To make sure Koshik wasn’t making regular elephant noises that happened to sound like Korean words, Stoeger and colleagues tested his vocalisations against 187 calls from 22 Asian elephants from a number of different zoos, both male and female, and of different ages, and found they were significantly different.
According to the researchers, who published their findings in Current Biology today, “The results indicate that the elephant brain can transfer detailed information between auditory centres and the corresponding motor planning regions (including those controlling the trunk muscles), in addition to having the precise control over the larynx necessary to gate and modulate fundamental frequency.” The only vaguely similar behaviour, they added, is seen in orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) as they manipulate sound using their hands or leaves.
Just why Koshik decided to imitate human speech in a way that no other elephants have managed is still a mystery, but it could have to do with wanting to make himself more similar to the humans while he was without elephant company. Perhaps learning the language of his trainers helped him to bridge the species gap. “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,” the researchers concluded.
Here’s an earlier video of Koshik vocalising:
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