Animal News: Talking Elephant
This story about a talking elephant isn’t political….really. And when I tell you about a talking elephant, I am not referring to a right wing announcer on the radio. It all began six years ago, as a video clip, sent by staff of the Everland Zoo in South Korea was sent to elephant-communication researcher Joyce Poole of ElephantVoices. The footage was the first look scientists would have of Koshik, the Korean-speaking elephant.
“This is amazing,” Poole, a Conservation Trust grantee for the National Geographic Society, had written at the time. “I can’t see any chance that it is being faked, and it is certainly a human voice that is being imitated.” She passed the clip to colleagues. Somebody needed to check this out—could this possibly be genuine?
Fast-forward six years, and confirmation has finally arrived in a new study led by one of Poole’s former colleagues, Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna. Koshik, Stoeger said, is definitely for real.
To reach this conclusion, Stoeger and her team first had to verify that Koshik’s sounds were words at all. According to the elephant’s trainers, he had a six-word vocabulary, including (“hello”), aniya (“no”), anja (“sit down”), and choah (“good”).
So the team played 47 recordings of the imitations to native Korean speakers who’d never heard the elephant before, and instructed them to simply write down whatever they heard. They knew they were listening to an elephant, but they didn’t know what they were supposed to hear, explains Stroeger, whose study appeared recently in the journal Current Biology.
But even to the human ears, the words were readily understandable and transcribed. To ensure these weren’t variants of natural elephant calls, the researchers also compared Koshik’s words to typical Asian elephant sounds, and found that they were completely different. However, they were dead ringers for the intonations and frequency of the commands of his trainers, whom the researchers believe are the subjects of Koshik’s imitations.
The fact that Koshik talks pales compared with how he talks. Elephants don’t have that cheek-lip structure—they long ago traded it in for trunks—so it’s anatomically impossible to make many sounds which are easy enough for us to make. Koshik sidesteps this problem by sticking the tip of his trunk into his mouth and moving his lower jaw, essentially MacGyvering his vocal tract.
Vocal imitation in the animal kingdom is already a rarity, and imitations of human speech even more so. Parrots can do it, as could a harbour seal named Hoover and a beluga whale from San Diego.
So next time you visit the zoo – and you’re near where elephants are being kept…..and you hear a voice – you may now ask yourself who the real elephant in the room is.