Just weeks after it was revealed that a beluga whale named NOC could mimic human voices, the journal of Current Biology has released a study documenting an male Asian elephant named Koshik who can mimic certain Korean words so accurately they are understood by native speakers.
Towards the end of video above, Koshik mimics the word “choah,” which means “good” in English, but the journal also said he could mimic the words “annoying,” “sit down,” “no,” and “lie down.” He says the words by putting his trunk in his mouth and then breathing outward while he shakes it.
“Human speech basically has two important aspects, pitch and timbre,” said researcher Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna in Austria in a release. “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. This is remarkable considering the huge size, the long vocal tract, and other anatomical differences between an elephant and a human.”
Researchers also said they didn’t completely understand why Koshik began imitating the words, but he may have picked them up while he was a juvenile living as the only elephant in the Everland Zoo in South Korea. An elephant’s early years are important bonding years, the release 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 said.
While Koshik is the first elephant to be studied for his human words, other elephants–both African and Asian–have been reported to mimic words, including an Asian elephant living in a zoo in Kazakhstan who was believed to have said words in both Russian and Kazakh. It is also believed that African elephants sometimes mimic the sound of truck engines, according to Current Biology.
While researchers say Korean native speakers could understand Koshik, they do not believe that Koshik, himself, understands what he is saying.
Photo of researchers recording Koshik’s voice courtesy Current Biology, Stoeger et al.