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Elephant Talk: Look Who's Speaking Korean

Kaushik 110212

A male Asian elephant named Koshik from Everland Zoo in South Korea imitates human speech in a very unusual way, says an international team led by researchers at the University of Vienna.

According to a study published Nov. 1, 2012, in the journal Current Biology, the elephant's vocal imitation corresponds to five Korean words - annyong (hello), anja(sit down), aniya(no), nuo(lie down) and choah(good), precisely matching the acoustic characteristics of its trainers.

Koshik, the captive-born 22-year-old elephant, creates these accurate imitations in a wholly novel method of vocal production - by placing his trunk tip into his mouth, and does not actually use these words meaningfully, say the researchers.

Though there have been numerous instances of animals imitating human speech, only a few convincing examples of speech imitation in nonhuman mammals are known. Hoover, an orphaned harbour seal, after being raised by a Maine fisherman that was able to talk in a near-human voice, and a male Asian elephant in a Kazakhstan zoo that was reportedly capable of producing speechlike utterances in Russian and Kazakh are some well-known examples of vocal learning in nonhuman mammals.

Vocal learning is a relatively rare trait found in only a few species of mammals and certain groups of birds, and researchers are of the view that Koshik's language skills may provide important insights into the biology and evolution of complex vocal learning.

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