Trunk in cheek, elephant mimics Korean

Novel posture lets animal approximate sounds of human words

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An Asian elephant has learned to mimic five words in Korean, creating a humanlike tone by sticking its trunk into its mouth.

TRUNK TRICK An Asian elephant named Koshik in a South Korean zoo has managed to mimic the sounds of human words, though there is no evidence he uses the sounds with any grasp of what they mean. KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images

This is the first systematically studied case of an elephant mimicking human speech, says bioacoustician Angela Stoeger at the University of Vienna. The male elephant, called Koshik and housed in a Korean zoo, makes sounds close in pitch to human language and reminds Korean speakers of actual words, Stoeger and her colleagues report in the Nov. 20 Current Biology.

Studying the select group of animals that can imitate sounds they hear broadens the understanding of a skill critical for human music and language, says Peter L. Tyack of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Other primates, humankind’s closest relatives, show “surprisingly little evidence” of learning to mimic sounds, says Tyack, who studies sound communication in marine mammals.

Intrigued by zookeepers’ reports that Koshik was mimicking Korean, Stoeger visited him in South Korea’s Everland Zoo. Koshik curls his trunk from the right side and puts the tip into his mouth before sounding off. It’s impossible to see exactly what his trunk tip does, yet the resulting sounds approximate the pitch of tones in human speech.

Stoeger played recordings of Koshik’s utterances for 16 native Korean speakers, asking them to transcribe the sounds regardless of whether they were words or babble. Two thirds of listeners agreed on his vowels, but consonants weren’t as close. Half of the listeners transcribed Koshik vocalizing annyong, which means hello in Korean. Almost half also heard aniya, Korean for no, which the zoo elephant had probably heard plenty of times. Listeners also agreed 15 percent or more on nuo (lie down), anja (sit down) and the vowel sounds in choah (good).

Koshik can respond appropriately to these words, but there’s no evidence he uses the sounds with a sense of their meaning. “He didn’t get upset if his keepers didn’t sit down,” Stoeger says.

For seven years Koshik was the only elephant in the zoo. He was clearly very motivated to engage in an interaction with his caretakers, says Vincent Janik at the University of St. Andrews. “Copying is a very effective way of addressing someone,” he says. “If I copy everything you say shortly after you say it, you will turn towards me and pay attention, no matter what the actual content of your or my utterances are.”

Other animals have appeared to mimic words, such as an orphan harbor seal named Hoover hand-raised in a bathtub before moving to Boston’s aquarium and a white whale called NOC whose occasional speechlike sounds confused a human diver in his tank.

Stoeger and her colleagues are now studying whether elephants imitate the sounds of other elephants.

The elephant Koshik sticks his trunk in his mouth and bellows what sounds like “choah” (good in Korean) in response to his trainer saying variations of “choah choah annyong” (good, good, hello). Koshik, who lives in a zoo in South Korea, is the first well-documented example of an elephant mimicking human speech.
Credit: A.S. Stoeger et al/Current Biology 2012

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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