Could our next best friend be an elephant? Maybe not for most of us here stateside, where we’re not exactly equipped to properly look after pachyderms. But the news out of a zoo in South Korea, reported by BBC News, shows that an elephant has entered the next stage of the human-animal bond: talking.
Before now, the only animals we could conceive of really being able to replicate our speech were parrots. Now elephants are joining the list. Koshik is a 12-year-old Asian elephant that lives at a zoo in South Korea. When he started making sounds that his keepers thought resembled Korean words, they uploaded a video of Koshik to the Internet.
Dr. Angela Stoeger, a scientist from the University of Vienna, saw the video. She and her team flew out to study Koshik, and the article they subsequently published on the topic examines his feat. Koshik can say five words in Korean: “hello,” “no,” “good,” “sit,” and “lie down.”
To verify Koshik’s ability to mimic speech, Stoeger gathered a group of native Korean speakers whom had never heard Koshik before. They played recordings of Koshik, and asked the group to transcribe what they thought they heard. The group had “high agreement” that Koshik spoke the above five words.
Elephants naturally have a much lower vocal register than humans. The sounds they make are usually more like rumbles. To more accurately mimic humans, Koshik sticks the tip of his trunk in his mouth when speaking. This is something he began doing on his own; he was not prompted by his keepers.
Stoeger doesn’t believe that Koshik comprehends the meanings of the words he’s speaking. But he is attempting to communicate with humans on some level, because he is going out of his way and innovating in order to more closely mimic the sounds he hears.
From the ages of 5 to 12, Koshik was the only elephant at his zoo. Elephants are highly social creatures, so for seven years Koshik had only his human keepers to look to for his social interaction. It makes sense that he’d do all he could to bond/communicate with them in some way.
I wonder if this will usher in an era of elephants being trained to “speak” the way that parrots are. After all, we already have elephants that paint and play soccer. I just love hearing stories about the abiding bond between humans and animals. Sure, wild animals like elephants aren’t for us to keep as pets, but that doesn’t mean that the right trained people can’t form some kind of bond with them.
*(The above image by wwarby is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.)