Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Zoo Elephant in Korea Imitates Human Speech

Chief trainer Kim Jong-gab touches the mouth of Koshik, a 22-year-old Asian elephant, at the Everland amusement park in Yongin, South Korea, Friday, Nov. 2, 2012. Koshik uses his trunk to pick up not only food but also human vocabulary. He can reproduce five Korean words by tucking his trunk inside his mouth to modulate sound. Photo courtesy: Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

An elephant in a South Korean zoo is using his trunk to pick up not only food, but also human vocabulary.

An international team of scientists confirmed Friday what the Everland Zoo has been saying for years: Their 5.5-ton tusker Koshik has an unusual and possibly unprecedented talent.

The 22-year-old Asian elephant can reproduce five Korean words by tucking his trunk inside his mouth to modulate sound, the scientists said in a joint paper published online in Current Biology. They said he may have started imitating human speech because he was lonely.

Dr. Angela Stoeger, from the University of Vienna in Austria, came across YouTube videos of the pachyderm speaking at the Everland Zoo in South Korea and made contact with the zoo to record him for a study.

Stoeger played recordings of Koshik's voice for native Korean speakers and asked them to write down what they believed was being said.

"We found a high agreement of the overall meaning," said Stoeger to BBC. "Human speech has two important aspects, one is pitch (how high or low a sound is) and one is timbre (the musical quality of a voice), and Koshik is matching both of these aspects."

Stoeger and her colleagues found Koshik was saying annyeong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuwo (lie down) and choah (good).

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

"If you consider the huge size of the elephant and the long vocal tract and other anatomic difference - for example he has a trunk instead of lips...and a huge larynx - and he is really matching the voice pitch of trainers, this is really remarkable," said Stoeger to BBC.

Researchers said the clearest scientific evidence that Koshik is deliberately imitating human speech is that the sound frequency of his words matches that of his trainers.

Vocal imitation of other species has been found in mockingbirds, parrots and mynahs. But the paper says Koshik’s case represents “a wholly novel method of vocal production” because he uses his trunk to reproduce human speech.

Researches don't believe he understands the words though. Between the ages of five and 12, he was the only elephant at the zoo and his only social contact was with humans.

"Where there's a will, there's a way. Koshik's drive to share vocalizations with his human companions was so strong that he invented a whole new way of making sounds to achieve it," said Stoeger to LiveScience. "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."

Asian and African elephants have also been known to mimic sounds like parrots, mynah birds, sea lions and a beluga whale. African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of a truck engine and a male Asian elephant in Kazakhstan was said to utter sounds resembling Russian and Kazakh.

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