Koshik, an elephant who resides at the Everland Zoo in South Korea, has astounded scientists — it seems he can talk.
The 22-year-old elephant can apparently mimic several words in Korean, including “annyong” (“hello”), “anja” (sit down”), “aniya” (“no”), “nuo” (“lie down”) and “choah” (“good’). Many of these words were used by Koshik’s trainers over the years, but whether Koshik comprehends what he is saying is still in question.
In a study published today in Current Biology that draws on research from Austria, Germany, Sri Lanka and South Korea, scientists had several Korean speakers listen to a recording of Koshik’s words, and then had them write down what they’d heard. They all agreed: They could understand certain of Koshik’s words
“We compared the structure of Koshik’s speech utterances to natural Asian elephant calls, finding that Koshik’s imitations are very different from the calls that Asian elephants produce naturally,” researcher Angela Stoeger at the University of Vienna wrote in an email to ABC News.
When asked if Koshik’s vocalizations were an attempt to communicate, Stoeger said “that is difficult to answer. Koshik mainly seems to be using these vocalizations as a way of bonding with people, rather than for their meaning.”
Daniel Mietchen, who was also involved in the study, said in an email that “Elephants communicate with humans in multiple ways already, and vocal imitation is not necessary for that.”
Unlike humans, elephants do not have lips but instead have large trunks through which they blow air, emitting a low-pitch sound. Koshik, however, places his trunk in his mouth to mimic words he hears.
The researchers can’t say exactly how Koshik learned to vocalize these few select Korean words, but they believe that Koshik’s growing up as the only elephant at Everland Zoo for five years played a part.
“During this time, he was trained to physically obey several commands and was exposed to human speech intensively by his trainers, veterinarians, guides and tourists. The decisive factor for speech imitation in Koshik may thus be that humans were the only social contact available during an important period of bonding and development,” Stoeger said in an email.
“The finding of Koshik imitating speech provides evidence that Asian elephants are among the species capable of vocal learning,” said Mietchen.
Birds, dolphins and whales also have this ability.
Stoeger called Koshik a clever elephant, who while much focused on humans also liked to interact with his female companion. “He seems to be a normal Asian elephant living in a zoo,” Stoeger said.
Nevertheless, there is something special about Koshik.