A talking elephant (Really!)

So, elephants can’t mimic human speech. Right?

Actually…

wrong.

Koshi, an Asian elephant at a South Korean zoo can do just this. Scientists from the University of Vienna saw video clips of Koshi on YouTube. At first, they thought just what I did — this must be fake! However, they’ve been studying Koshi and his very unusual talent and have just published a paper about him in the journal Current Biology.

I originally heard about Koshi last week on NPR. I encourage you to listen to this NPR piece:

Move Over, Parrot: Elephant Mimics Trainer At Zoo

It’s pretty short. The clip is about 4 minutes long and talks about Koshi and the research study. It even includes some of the sounds that Koshi makes.

There’s a pretty big difference between an animal making sounds that “sound like” human speech and purposefully repeating sounds made by a human. Lots of mammals do the first, just do a quick search on YouTube. However, very few mammals can do the second. (Although birds are pretty good at this.)

photo by beggs

There are a few things that are particularly interesting about Koshi. Elephants cannot normally make human sounds. So, Koshi has invented a way for him to make these sounds. To make human-like sounds, Koshi puts his trunk in his mouth and manipulates his vocal tract.

Also, interestingly, Koshi was deprived of contact with other elephants during a critical period of his childhood. His only companions were his human trainers and keepers. The research team wonders if this contributed to him learning to imitate human speech.

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  • Lisa Rossman

    This actually made me very sad. While it’s amazing, all I could think about was the elephant’s loneliness.

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I agree with you, I think it’s so important for animals to have companions of their same species, otherwise animals can and do get very lonely. Elephants, especially, are such social creatures. My understanding is that he currently has other other elephant companions. I am not sure what the circumstances were that led to him having to be an only elephant for several years, but I’m going to see if I can look up the journal article to see if there’s any additional information in there.

      ~Mary

  • Joy

    Incredible story. Elephants are very social animals. I always remember the information from a sign at the Dallas Zoo. It talks about how elephants mourn when a member of their group dies.

    • Yes, they are very smart and very social creatures. It will be interesting to see what researchers find out as they continue to investigate the intelligence and social structure of elephants.

      ~Mary