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