SEOUL (UPI) — An Asian elephant named Koshik can imitate human speech, speaking words in Korean that are readily understood by those who know the language, researchers say.
Writing in the journal Current Biology, researchers said Koshik’s language skills might provide important clues to the biology and evolution of complex vocal learning, an ability that is critical for human speech and music.
Koshik, who lives at the Everland Zoo in South Korea, vocalizes in an unusual way by putting his trunk in his mouth, researchers said, and has a vocabulary of exactly five words: “annyong” (hello), “anja” (sit down), “aniya” (no), “nuo” (lie down) and “choah” (good).
“Intriguingly, the elephant Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns: he accurately imitates human formants as well as the voice pitch of his trainers,” Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna said. “This is remarkable considering the huge size, the long vocal tract, and other anatomical differences between an elephant and a human.”
Researchers say they believe Koshik doesn’t actually understand what he says, suggesting his mimicry may stem from his days as a juvenile, when he was the only elephant living at the zoo for about five years during an important period for elephant bonding and development.
Humans were his only social contacts during that time, they said.
“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,” Stoeger says.