An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech

Vocal imitation has convergently evolved in many species, allowing learning and cultural transmission of complex, conspecific sounds, as in birdsong. Scattered instances also exist of vocal imitation across species, including mockingbirds imitating other species or parrots and mynahs producing human speech. Here, we document a male Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) that imitates human speech, matching Korean formants and fundamental frequency in such detail that Korean native speakers can readily understand and transcribe the imitations. To create these very accurate imitations of speech formant frequencies, this elephant (named Koshik) places his trunk inside his mouth, modulating the shape of the vocal tract during controlled phonation. This represents a wholly novel method of vocal production and formant control in this or any other species. One hypothesized role for vocal imitation is to facilitate vocal recognition by heightening the similarity between related or socially affiliated individuals [1,2]. The social circumstances under which Koshik’s speech imitations developed suggest that one function of vocal learning might be to cement social bonds and, in unusual cases, social bonds across species. Read more…

Source: Current Biology

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