I was so surprised to see an article in article in the NYT (Nov. 2, 2012) about Koshik (Kosik), the talking elephant in Korea. I had actually written a long feature article about Koshik in 2006 in the JoongAng Daily. At the time, a professor at Seoul National University was trying to get scholars who had done previous studies on elephants to collaborate with their research on Kosik- I see that it actually happened!
Here is a link to a Korean news page that has a video of Kosik. The sounds he makes are obviously not the same as humans, but are fairly articulate. Moreover, the sounds aren’t just coincidence. When elephants communicate among themselves, the frequencies are extremely low, which are impossible for humans to hear. Here is a link to the scholarly article, published in Current Biology. I love this section in their abstract:
“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. 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.”
Vocal imitation as a result of social bonds across species!!
I really must say that I admire his trainer, Mr. Jong-gap Kim, who is unbelievably dedicated to the animal. I remember talking with Mr. Kim who, for a time, was considered crazy by his coworkers because no one would believe that an elephant could produce human sounds.
Below, I’ve added the article that I wrote in 2006, because sometimes Korean websites are difficult to access outside of Korea.
Elephant seems to speak Korean (link to article here)
Scientists suspect animal is mimicking trainer’s voice commands
Published in JoongAng Daily, Oct 08,2006
Of course, he didn’t expect an answer, and none came. That’s strange, he thought, and went back to his office. Some time later, Mr. Kim heard the sounds again, but this time, he saw for himself where they were coming from and could not believe his eyes ― or ears, in this case.
But then, Kosik’s vocal activities became more frequent, and other people began hearing him “talk” as well.
“I had no idea he was going to mimic me. If I had known, I would have used nicer, prettier words instead of short commands. Or maybe I could have taught him my name,” Mr. Kim said with regret. “At least from now on, I will be careful and try to speak in more proper language in front of Kosik.”
While parrots have been commonly known to mimic human sounds, Kosik’s case is rarer. For one thing, elephants don’t make usually sounds that the human ear can hear unless they are angry.
|▶ Trainer Kim Jong-gap shows a computer display comparing his and Kosik’s vocal patterns. Provided by Everland|
“When elephants communicate among themselves, it is in frequencies below 20 Hz, which are not audible to the human ear. [Humans only hear sounds between 20 and 20,000 Hz.] During the Asian tsunami, elephants escaped to the mountains well before the tidal waves arrived,” said Kim Yang-bum, a veterinary doctor at Everland. “The trumpeting sounds which we associate with elephants are only made when they are agitated, which is not the case with Kosik.”
Study results showed that Kosik and his trainer have similar vibration and resonance development patterns in the frequency range of 200 Hz and a similar tone of voice.
Dr. Kim showed computer data that had waves moving up and down, recording the trainer’s vocal patterns. The data of his voice and that of Kosik’s were almost identical.
The Korean scientists said they plan to conduct further studies in connection with elephant behavior to find out why Kosik may have started to mimic his trainer in the first place.
“There have been studies that show that elephants are very considerate of those that they consider their family. Perhaps this implies that Kosik had a very strong relationship with his trainer. We wouldn’t be surprised if that were so, because our trainer Mr. Kim is very devoted to the animals. He and Kosik have known each other for 10 years,” said Dr. Kim.
Dr. Kim noted, however, that even though elephants may appear to be very slow because of their large bodies, they actually have huge brains and past studies have shown that their intelligence is similar to that of a two or three-year-old human child.
When the Korean scientists contacted Peter Tyack, the writer of that paper, he expressed great interest and said that if Kosik’s reported speech was indeed true, the data would make a very powerful science paper. The scientists involved in the study said they will work with other local scientists and foreign experts to uncover more information on the speaking-elephant phenomenon.